Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Mark's thoughts: Why do Lutherans have Confirmation on Palm Sunday?

This Sunday in many Lutheran congregations, eighth grade youth will don white gowns (perhaps accompanied by a kind of red stole) and take part in the Lutheran Rite of Confirmation.  This is a day to which Lutherans assign great importance as they give gifts to the confirmands and hold confirmation receptions.

In many congregations it is a long standing tradition that Palm Sunday is Confirmation Sunday. Everyone knows that Confirmation takes place on this day.  Woe to the pastor who attempts to hold Confirmation on another Sunday!  But why is this so?  What is the liturgical or theological connection between Palm Sunday and Confirmation that has prompted this long established practice?

The answer is that there is none.  Arthur Repp explains in Confirmation in the Lutheran Church that during the age of Rationalism in the 18th century, Confirmation became fixed on Palm Sunday for reasons completely unrelated to liturgy or theology:

While the dates still varied according to locality, there was a tendency for them to cluster around Holy Week, for many of the schools closed for spring planting about that season or with Easter.  In time Palm Sunday or Maundy Thursday came to be designated by law, and great uniformity in the closing of the school year then followed” (pg. 82).

This trend continued during the 19th century in American Lutheranism.  Repp reports:

Since confirmation instruction proved to be more than simply a preparation for first Communion and became an opportunity to concentrate on the catechumen’s general religious instruction with confirmation as a sort of terminal point, the tendency to advance the age to 13 and 14 prevailed.  This was especially true when confirmation instruction was associated with the close of school, as had been the case in Europe. Congregations that conducted parish school, especially in rural areas, followed the European pattern of closing the school term at Easter.  A child’s confirmation therefore coincided with his graduation from grammar school (pg. 126)

What immigrants had experienced in Europe, they expected here in the United States:

In Europe, where confirmation was closely associated with the school system, confirmation was customarily held on Palm Sunday or during Holy Week, since Easter usually marked the end of the school term.  Immigrants from Europe after the 1830’s generally favored the same time of year for confirmation in the United States (pg. 128).

So why do Lutherans hold Confirmation on Palm Sunday?  It has nothing to do with the Church Year or lectionary or theology.  It is because school in Europe ended around the time of Holy Week to order to coincide with the spring planting.  The end of the school year and graduation from grammar school occurred at Holy Week and so Confirmation took place on Palm Sunday.

The tradition that Confirmation takes place on Palm Sunday illustrates how Confirmation practices that people now consider to be “Lutheran” developed because of reasons that had nothing to do with Lutheran theology.  In the case of Confirmation at the time of school graduation, it also illustrates how Confirmation in the Lutheran church has fostered ideas that are harmful to biblical and Lutheran teaching. For three hundred years Confirmation has been oriented in ways that teach people to think about Confirmation as graduation from catechesis and learning the faith – we even include the graduation gowns! They have been confirmed. They are done.

What is more many of the things that people consider to be the “truly Lutheran” Confirmation practices were generated by theology that is opposed to Lutheran teaching.  Many of the things people associate with Confirmation in the Lutheran Church today arose in the era of Rationalism. During this period there was a general trend that downplayed the miraculous.  The sacraments by definition go beyond the limits of reason and so if they could not be eliminated entirely, church leaders attempted to minimize them as much as possible (it is in this period that every Sunday celebration of the Sacrament of the Altar finally ends).  Friedrich Schleirmacher (1768-1834) taught that Confirmation is the second, and more important, half of Baptism.  After all, Confirmation was the reasoned statement by an individual who was now making a solemn commitment.

It is in this period in particular that Confirmation came of age as the institution that we know today. Rationalism played up Confirmation as a major event.  It was described in words like: “the great festival of youth”; “the festival of human nature”; “the most important day of a child’s life”; “the festival that cannot be made solemn enough;” “like another birthday for children and a holy festival for the congregation.”

During this time the Examination was separated from Confirmation as separate event.  The vow in connection with the confession of faith became a dramatic moment in the Rite of Confirmation and was often described as an “oath.”  After the vow the pastor spoke a special Bible passage or hymn stanza (Einsegnungw├╝nsche). This gave rise to practice of giving individual memory verses to the confirmands.  Confirmation took center stage as a cultural and family event.  Sentimentalism became a driving force.

Of course, these developments in Confirmation were all done for the purpose of minimizing baptism – something that is about as un-Lutheran as you can get!  The efforts of Rationalism succeeded.  Confirmation has achieved a remarkable status in the culture of the Lutheran church which places tremendous emphasis on Confirmation as a terminal event.  Even parents who are unfaithful in attendance at the Divine Service and catechesis of their children consider Confirmation to be of great importance.  Parents will make the effort needed to see their youth are confirmed. Confident that they have done their spiritual duty as parents, they then return to unfaithful attendance at the Divine Service.  Naturally, confirmed youth whose behavior was guided by the parents before Confirmation, return with their parents to the same behavior. Confirmation as presently practiced allows unfaithful parents to feel assured that they have done their spiritual duty – the kids have been confirmed!

These results should not be surprising.  It really could not turn out any other way.  A consideration of Confirmation's history reveals that from the very beginning it has been generated by a false theology.  At different stages Pietism and then Rationalism have built upon this foundation in the effort to promote theological views that are contrary to Lutheranism.  

Perhaps the Wittenberg Lutherans of Luther's day knew what they were doing. They never had any kind of Rite of Confirmation. This was the case in the majority of congregations in Germany and Scandanavia during the 17th century.  It was Pietism that spread the practice of Confirmation starting at the end of the 17th century. By the mid-18th century it had spread to the majority of Germany and then to the final holdouts at the beginning of the 19th century as Rationalism finished what Pietism had started. Confirmation is the gift of Pietism and Rationalism to the Lutheran Church.   


  1. Excellent post. Helping people step out of localized and cultural traditions is going to be crucial in this pagan age. And I use "crucial" to mean "crux" or "cross," as it will involve losing our lives in pursuit of the lost. Well written. +God have mercy!

  2. I remember talking about the rise of confirmation due to the twin influences of rationalism and pietism in seminary, but I have to confess to ignorance of the reformation-era practice in Germany. Was there any kind of uniform practice regarding when children would receive communion for the first time? Did the Evangelicals continue the pre-reformation pattern for first communion? Can you recommend any reading on the topic?

    1. Here is what I have provided when talking about this at district pastors'conferences:

      Best work on the whole topic:
      Maxwell E. Johnson. The Rites of Christian Initiation: Their Evolution and Interpretation. rev. and exp. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2007.

      Early and medieval period:
      J.D.C. Fisher, Christian Initiation: Baptism in the Medieval West – A Study in the Disintegration of the Primitive Rite of Initiation. Chicago: Hillenbrand Books, 2004.

      Mark Surburg, “Weird and Wacky history of Confirmation – complete links.”

      Lutheran Confirmation:
      Arthur C. Repp, Confirmation in the Lutheran Church. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1964.

  3. Mark, the roots of the elevation of confirmation stretch back to Augustin. He is the first I know of who makes confirmation more important than baptism. See his Against Donatus. However the seed of this error can be seen in Stephan of Rome's distinction between the validity and efficacy of the sacrament.

  4. Do you have a proposal for how we return confirmation to its proper place and connect it with out Lutheran theology?

    1. This.

      Our congregation has the opportunity to begin making such changes this coming year and I would love to have something to present to our elders.

  5. When I was confirmed (1969), we did it on Pentecost Sunday. During the years of my ministry, I took a different approach. The first day of class, I would hand out a syllabus that outlined 28 classes, memory work, and assignments. I would explain that when we completed all 28 classes the first time, then we would begin at the top again (2nd year). When we completed that, and any missed classes made up, then they could be examined and confirmed. I left the actual date of confirmation up to the families involved. If they wanted it on a particular Sunday (Palm Sunday, Pentecost, Reformation, etc.) they knew that all their work, classes, and examination had to be completed by that time, or it wasn't going to happen. The kids would actually motivate each other to get everything done.

    Then on confirmation day, the kids would not only get their Confirmation Bible, but also a box of offering envelopes, a time & talent sheet, and a copy of the congregation's constitution & by-laws. I would impress upon them that Confirmation was NOT graduation; rather that they now had the responsibilities, rights, and benefits of full communicant membership in the congregation, and we would regard them no differently than we would any other communicant member.

    Indeed there are special circumstances, and we would work with that. The first years of my ministry were in Australia, and we had families that were hundreds of miles away who worshipped by video. We would bring the kids in during school holidays (staying with members) for a type of "confirmation camp" where we did intensified 1 or 2 week-long instruction. I did not adjust the syllabus at all, and they had to do all the same work. Again, the actual date of confirmation had to coincide with the period of instruction.

    So often, my biggest problem was with the parents, and it had little or nothing to do with the actual confirmation day. The parents would regard confirmation studies as "not important," especially when it came to other school work and activities. I was very careful with my lesson planning so that any homework assignment should take no longer than an hour per week, which I explained to both the parents and students. Parents would come to me later and tell me how busy their child was, and how they had no time to do the work. I would remind them of the one hour commitment; and if the child had trouble finding that time, just turn off the TV; and then to take five minutes to listen to the child's memory work to be sure it was down pat. Pastors have since told me that they have parents in the classroom on a rotating basis, and that changes the dynamic. Had I thought of it, I might have tried it.

    Sorry for the lengthy comment, but this is what happens sometimes when I get started! I welcome any personal correspondence:

  6. Nice piece Mark! I wasn't aware of this history!

  7. Rev Everett S. Pepper Pastor, Peace Lutheran Church LC-MS Though I have not researched the reference pattern of the article, I am in complete agreement with the drawn and implied conclusion(s). Baptism takes the focal point of confirmation instruction in my classes. Memory work and didactic assessment are low in priority. ^ chief principle parts, who the Christ is, our creeds dissected, and scripture (inside and out) are starting points. If time permits, confirmation is held on the Sunday before reformation. I try and make this as far away from parental influence as practical. After all, it's the young persons confession of faith, not their parents.

  8. I was confirmed on Palm Sunday, 1963. A week earlier on a Sunday evening we were examined publicly in front of the congregation during a Vespers service. Then on Maundy Thursday, we received our first communion. I always thought that one of reasons we were confirmed on Palm Sunday was because our first communion was on the night Jesus instituted the Lord's Supper. Having our first communion on Maundy Thursday was very special because of that fact. Also, at the age of 12 or 13, we were truly able to examine ourselves.

    I realize today some congregations give Holy Communion to children younger and that's fine with me. My confirmation was very special to me and the traditions associated with it very meaningful.

    Thank you for the history lesson.


  9. If the traditions of confirmation were perverted by the Age of Rationalism bogeyman, then why, in the past 170 years, have no confessional Lutheran leaders and pastors in Missouri Synod, who have the responsibility for carrying out the Rite of Confirmation, subsequently purged such errors from the Rite of Confirmation?

    In fact, rather than focusing on the associated adiaphora, confessional Lutherans in the Missouri Synod should emphasize what the Rite of Confirmation, following catechesis, is supposed to be: a public examination and public vow by the confirmand of his unconditional subscription to the doctrine in the Book of Concord of 1580 as a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, and his desire to become a communicant member of his congregation that holds and requires that same confessional subscription as a member of the Missouri Synod.

    This correct Rite of Confirmation is congruent with the Evangelical Lutheran Church (and the Missouri Synod's supposed) position on closed communion. Such a correct Rite of Confirmation stands as a bulwark against the heterodox open communion practice of "early communion" (with "early" meaning any post-baptism time prior to confirmation).

    Comparison to any confirmation vows during Martin Luther's day would need to realize that the referenced exposition of the doctrine of the Evangelical Lutheran Church to which a confirmand subscribes was not available until forty-four years after Luther's death.

  10. Carl, The problem is not what Rationalism added, but rather the Rite itself. It's history shows clearly that it has never operated on basis you suggest as the "correct Rite of Confirmation." The presuppositions of pietism and rationalism have always driven the use of the Rite of Confirmation in the Lutheran church. Your response fails to take into account that Wittenberg Lutheranism, and the vast majority of Lutheranism in Germany and Scandinavia during the 16th and 17th centuries had no rite of Confirmation.

  11. Again, the doctrine of the Evangelical Lutheran Church was not exposited in the Book of Concord of 1580 until...... 1580.

    And even after 1580 the churches in the Scandinavian countries did not subscribe unconditionally to the entire Book of Concord, so they cannot be considered today as truly Lutheran and part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. The Lutheran Church in the Nordic country of Finland did subscribe to the Book of Concord (but the State Church of Finland has since abandoned its Lutheran practices).

    What needs to be understood is the meaning of the Lutheran Rite of Confirmation in the Missouri Synod today and the understanding of the confirmation vow by which the confirmand becomes a communicant member in his congregation.

    In its November 1999 document, "Admission to the Lord’s Supper: Basics of Biblical and Confessional Teaching," the CTCR stated (pp. 45-6):

    "[I]f individual church members are not seen as 'confessors' of their church body’s doctrine, then the concept of church membership is watered down to the point of meaninglessness. The rationale for any catechesis in the traditional sense of the term vanishes, and there emerges a resounding contradiction between our own confirmation process and the attitude with which we view members of other denominations. Indeed, there would be no theological rejoinder possible to a member of an adult membership class in one of our churches who publicly rejected (for example) the Lutheran doctrine of baptism and still wanted to join the congregation.

    "[U]nless individual Christians can be seen as 'confessors' of their church body’s doctrine, Scripture’s teaching concerning altar and pulpit fellowship as historically confessed by the LCMS becomes virtually meaningless. It is true that one could maintain that on the denominational or even congregational levels, there should not be joint communion services. But if any of the individuals in those services could–at least in theory and under ordinary circumstances— commune together, then the formal practice would be emptied of all real meaning....

    "The Eucharist is the congregation’s sacrament of unity. Differences of [or partial or no] confession cannot be a matter of indifference when seeking the unity presupposed by the Lord’s Supper, the very unity that the Supper is given to maintain and preserve."

  12. In his paper, "Straight Talk About Closed Communion," Pr. William P. Terjesen states:

    "Closed communion (some call it 'close communion') is the Bible-based practice of normally communing only those who have been properly instructed in the teachings of the Ev. Lutheran Church and who have shown, through confirmation, profession of faith, or other proper reception into one of our churches, that they are united with us in faith and doctrine.

    "Closed communion is most definitely NOT simply the personal opinion or practice of some of our more conservative pastors. It is not an option that each pastor may do or not do as he sees fit....If I were to bar the way to Holy Communion for people simply on the basis of my personal preference or opinion, and not on the basis of the Word of God, the Lutheran Confessions and the theology and practice of the Missouri Synod, I would be a cad, a lout, and a false teacher. No, those who practice closed communion do so precisely because it is taught in the Bible and the Book of Concord, and is the official position of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

    "We must come to grips with the biblical fact that when you join a church, that act is a public testimony given before God and the world, and bound with an oath, that you subscribe to the teachings of that church. Whatever your personal opinions may be, your membership in this church is your public confession of faith before the world that you believe and confess what we believe, teach and confess.

    Romans 10:9-10 - 9) that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. 10) For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.

    "The confession of our mouths and the belief of our hearts is supposed to be the same thing. The idea that a person would belong to a church but not necessarily believe what that church teaches is an attitude unworthy of Christian profession."

    The practice of "early communion" (i.e., prior to confirmation with its public confession of the doctrine exposited in the Book of Concord of 1580) is the lufauxran practice of open communion.

  13. I understand from what I've read that there was no particular rite of confirmation among the orthodox Lutherans in Europe in the 16th-17th centuries. But, I understand that there were weekly catechism services held on Sunday afternoons in the church in a type of vesper service. They spoke the catechism (just Luther's very simple part) over and over, and when they got to the end, they started over again. I don't quit know how or when a child would move beyond catechism. When was 1st communion, and if they are communing they would have a father confessor? When did the child (and his family) arrange that relationship? There must have been some instruction about how to confess. Did the father confessor instruct the child in that regard? Were the altar deacons instructive to the child about attending the altar? I have an idea that at some uncertain point the child moved beyond catechism speaking and the God parents handed off the child to his father confessor. Something like that must have happened.

    1. Joanne, Generally when parents thought the child was ready they would inform the pastor. Typically there was a period of review with the pastor. Then the child was examined by the pastor with parents present. Reception of the Sacrament always was preceded by Private Confession. The Confessor was generally the pastor who examined the child - though in larger cities with multiple pastors this could vary. Attendance at the catechism service you described continued until the child was about 20 years old or married. Catechetical preaching for the whole congregation took place, usually four times a year (one of which was always in Lent.

  14. This Lutheran does not have confirmation on Palm Sunday but on Reformation Sunday. Have done it that way for more than 30 years in both congregations. Great way to emphasize the Reformation in an area without a strong Lutheran identity and the renewal ideas inherent to both fit well.

  15. I didn't know this information before. The Palm Sunday Confirmation was a relatively new concept to me within the past 15 years. My vicarage church did it on Palm Sunday and so I believed it was a new thing. I've had 4 people confirmed (3 adults, 1 Jr.). I won't have any more for a couple years. I guess I'm a but ignorant about these things.