Lutherans Making a World of Difference: Two Renewers of Society

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Most of the Lutherans we’ve explored in this series of Bishop’s Columns have been religious leaders whose impact has been felt specifically within the church. This month we consider two Lutherans whose service has been more noticeable in the world.

This does not diminish the significance of these individuals, because of our Lutheran understanding of vocation. Following Martin Luther (1483-1546) we believe that our whole life in Christ starts in our baptism. In baptism we are both saved from sin and and sent into God’s world to serve our neighbors in all the vocations (or callings) that claim us. In this regard Lutherans sometimes speak of baptism as our “ordination” into our ministry in daily life.

Such ministry takes many forms, ranging from our daily work to our roles within our families to the exercise of our citizenship and even to our past-times (hobbies, volunteer activities, arts, music, etc.) God values, empowers and makes use of all our gifts in the totality of our lives: “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Colossians 3:17)

During the Reformation era, this “worldly” understanding of vocation was a departure from the then-Catholic focus on vocation as referring to clerical roles within the church. In contrast, Martin Luther saw vocation everywhere he looked, beginning with the families into which we are all born: “How is it possible that you are not called? You have…always been a husband or a wife, a boy or a girl, or servant…” (Luther’s Works, Sermon on the Day of St John the Evangelist)

So let’s take a look at two Lutherans who changed the world—one by way of his vocation in international diplomacy, the other via his calling to be a scientist.

Dag Hammarskjold (1905-1961)

Dag Hjalmar Agne Carl Hammarskjold (pronounced HAMmer-SHOLD) grew up in an aristocratic Swedish family of civil servants, his father serving as Prime Minister of Sweden when Dag was born.[1] After studying economics and law at the Universities of Uppsala and Stockholm, he was a university teacher for a few years. Thereafter he entered the civil service in his country, holding positions in the Ministries of Finance and Foreign Affairs, and rising to the Swedish equivalent of the U.S. Secretary of State.

In the early 1950s Hammarskjold’s work shifted to the infant United Nations, founded on October 24, 1945. After serving in the Swedish delegation to the U.N. he was elected the second Secretary General of the U.N. on April 10, 1953—a position he held for the rest of his life.

During Hammarskjold’s time of leading the U.N. he had to deal with the end of the Korean War, problems in the Middle East, and the crisis over the Suez Canal. When civil war broke out in the newly-independent African nation of the Congo, Hammarskjold sent a U.N. peace-keeping force to suppress the violence. While traveling to the Congo to personally negotiate a cease-fire, Hammarskjold died in a plane crash on September 18, 1961.[2] For his steadfast efforts in international peacekeeping, Hammarskjold became the first person ever to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize posthumously in 1961.

Only after his tragic death did the world discover the depths of Hammarskjold’s faith and spirituality. Although he seemed to have had a nominal upbringing in the (Lutheran) Church of Sweden, he didn’t appear to be an active church member (though in his youth he acknowledged being shaped by Swedish archbishop Nathan Soderblom[3]).

After his death a personal journal was discovered in Hammarskjold’s home in New York City—a journal he had begun keeping when he was 20 and concluded with entries made the month before his death. Published in 1963 under the title, Markings, Hammarskjold’s journal made it clear that he was a Christian, the depths of whose spiritual life had been entirely unsuspected. Theologian Henry P. Van Dusen called Markings “the noblest self-disclosure of spiritual struggle and triumph, perhaps the greatest testament of personal faith written … in the heat of professional life and amidst the most exacting responsibilities for world peace and order.”[4]

Norman Borlaug (1914-2009)

Norman Ernest Borlaug was born March 25, 1914 on a farm near Cresco, Iowa, to Henry and Clara Borlaug.[5] He was the great-grandson of Norwegian immigrants, and his grandfather helped found Immanuel Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Congregation in the small Norwegian-American community of Saude, near Cresco.[6]

After completing his primary and secondary education in Cresco, Borlaug enrolled in the University of Minnesota where he majored in forestry. After serving a few years in the U.S. Forest Service he returned to the University of Minnesota for his master’s and doctoral degrees in plant pathology (1939 and 1942, respectively).

From 1942 to 1944, he was a microbiologist on the staff of the du Pont de Nemours Foundation where he was in charge of research on industrial and agricultural bactericides, fungicides, and preservatives. In 1944 he accepted an appointment as geneticist and plant pathologist assigned the task of organizing and directing the Cooperative Wheat Research and Production Program in Mexico. Over the next twenty years he and his team-mates succeeded in finding a high-yielding short-strawed, disease-resistant wheat. Extensive production of this new strain of wheat inaugurated the so-called Green Revolution that was credited with saving the lives of 1 billion persons in developing countries around the world—for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.

His Nobel lecture wove together scientific insights with biblical passages. In so doing Borlaug clearly articulated the faith-based, moral convictions that undergirded his scientific work: “The first essential component of social justice is adequate food for all mankind. Food is the moral right of all who are born into this world….By developing and applying the scientific and technological skills of the twentieth century for the well-being of mankind throughout the world, [we] may still see Isaiah’s prophesies come true: ‘And the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose… And the parched ground shall become a pool, and the thirsty land springs of water….’”

When Dr. Borlaug died in 2009 at the age of 95, ELCA Pastor David Beckmann, President of Bread for the World, presided at his memorial service in Dallas, Texas. Beckmann declared that “Dr. Borlaug, a man of faith and compassion, was an advocate as well as a scientist. He convinced many political leaders to do their part in reducing hunger.”

For Reflection and Discussion

  • Read and reflect (preferably with others) on how these brief excerpts from Hammarskjold’s book, Markings, connected with his faith and his work in global diplomacy:

For all that has been–Thanks!

To all that shall be–Yes!

Not I, but God in me.

He who has surrendered himself to it knows that the Way ends on the Cross–even when it is leading him through the jubilation of Gennesaret[7] or the triumphal entry into Jerusalem.[8]

  • September 21 is the commemoration of Dag Hammarskjold. Take time on that day to offer the following prayer:

Holy and righteous God, you created us in your image. Grant us grace to contend fearlessly against evil and to make no peace with oppression. Help us, like your servant Dag Hammarskjold, to work for justice among people and nations, to the glory of your name, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen. (ELW, p. 60, a prayer for Renewers of Society)

  • Read and reflect (preferably with others) on this quotation from Borlaug’s 1970 Nobel Lecture:

“…The majority of the urbanites in the industrialized nations have forgotten the significance of the words they learned as youngsters, ‘Give us this day our daily bread’. They know that food comes from the supermarket, but only a few see beyond to the necessary investments, the toil, struggle, and frustrations on the farms and ranches that provide their daily bread. Since the urbanites have lost their contact with the soil, they take food for granted and fail to appreciate the tremendous efficiency of their farmers and ranchers, who, although constituting only five percent of the labor force in a country such as the United States, produce more than enough food for their nation.”[9]

Lawrence R. Wohlrabe
Bishop, Northwestern Minnesota Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
God’s work. Our hands.


[1] Except where otherwise noted, biographical materials on Hammarskjold are from Philip Pfatteicher, Festivals and Commemorations: Handbook to the Calendar in Lutheran Book of Worship ((Augsburg, 1980), pp.359-361.

[2] A U.N. study commission in 2015 lent credence to speculations that Hammarskjold’s plane may have been shot down by factions opposed to his peace-making efforts.


[4] Henry P Van Dusen. Dag Hammarskjold: A Biographical Interpretation of Markings, Faber and Faber, London, 1967, p 5.

[5] Except as otherwise noted, biographical information on Borlaug is excerpted from


[7] Gennesaret was a fertile, beautiful plain on the west side of the Sea of Galilee.

[8]Dag Hammarskjöld, Markings, trans. Leif Sjöberg and W. H. Auden [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964], pp. 89-91