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The Night the Beatles Came to Church
Kurt Krueger

I remember the night the Beatles came to the basement of my father’s church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It was February 9, 1964, and I was a high school sophomore.

This was the time of the Cold War, a simpler time when the good guys (us) and the bad guys (the Soviets) were clearly identifiable.

My fifteen-year-old self was aware of Sputnik and the space race, the assassination of a young president, and the emergence of rock’n’roll, but pretty much unaware of the race wars that were brewing in Detroit and Los Angeles and, to a lesser degree, in my hometown of Milwaukee. And I had only a vague awareness of a war heating up in a place called Vietnam.

During my high school years, our youth group met every other Sunday afternoon or evening in the church basement for Bible study and fellowship, sometimes staying at the church, sometime leaving church for an activity.

Our core beliefs and rules for daily living came from the Bible. That, and Martin Luther’s Small Catechism.

Our church youth group was part of the Walther League, and at the beginning of every youth group meeting, we sang the official Walther League song, which began: “Walther Leaguers, Walther Leaguers / One and all are we / Serving Jesus Christ our Savior / Who has set us free.” 

Walther League events were a lot of fun for us, though always safe and predictable.

In the spring and summer we went horseback riding or played miniature golf; sponsored car washes to raise money for mission work; and went swimming in the waters of Lake Michigan, frigid even in August.     

In the fall there were hayrides, and helping with the church’s Fall Festival, also known as Halloween.

And during the long Milwaukee winters there was bowling, caroling to shut-ins, and, in the church basement, board games, shuffleboard, and square dancing. Other kinds of dancing were not allowed, especially slow dancing or “hug dancing,” which could lead to who knows what.

Throughout the year, some of my wayward Walther League friends would go to Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) dances on Saturday night and come to our church the next morning displaying the green “CYO” stamp on the backs of their hands as hard evidence of CYO dance attendance.

I think my father saw the CYO-stamped hands but was not bothered by these minor displays of religious rebellion. However, it was made clear to me that the pastor’s children would never attend a CYO dance—or any other dance, for that matter.

This was also a time in our Lutheran church when Hollywood movies were looked upon with suspicion—with the exception of The Ten Commandments in rerun, and maybe a Doris Day or Disney movie.

While not considered demonic, rock music was also looked upon with suspicion. The closest my high school, Concordia Milwaukee, got to acknowledging rock’n’roll music was in Latin class when we were required to translate Beatles song titles into Latin: “I Want to Hold Your Hand” became “Volo ut teneat manum tuam.”

So it really shocked me when my kind but conservative father, Pastor Krueger, said “Yes” when several girls in our Walther League group asked if they could please watch the Beatles during our youth meeting because they had wanted to stay home from church that night to watch the Beatles on Ed Sullivan but their parents insisted that they go to Walther League even though they would miss seeing the Beatles and all their friends would be talking about seeing the Beatles on TV the next day so it was really important and could they please watch the Beatles.

So on Sunday evening, February 9, 1964, my father asked me and my best friend, Carleton, to go across the street to the parsonage and bring the Krueger family TV to church. There was no TV at our church in 1964.

We brought the TV down the steps to the church basement, balanced it on a folding table normally used for potluck dinners, rustled up an extension cord, plugged in the black-and- white TV, turned the channel selector to the CBS station, and adjusted the rabbit ears.

A few minutes later Ed Sullivan introduced the Beatles, and the sounds of hyperventilating adolescent girls shrieked out of the tiny, tinny TV speaker.

We could not hear the Beatles, but the otherwise reserved girls and guys in my youth group, kids with German and Scandinavian surnames like Reichert, Ziebell, Hildebrand, Ziege, Hanson, and Mueller, fixated on the TV screen, fascinated by the images and sounds of an emerging pop culture, a culture that Walther League activities like hayrides, miniature golf, and bowling would struggle to compete with.  

My kind, conservative father stood smiling and motionless, trying to understand what he was watching in the eyes of his church’s youth.

I think my father had an inkling that the Beatles’s appearance on Ed Sullivan marked the beginning of an important change for the young people in his congregation and for our close-knit ethnic community. Little by little, things changed for my father and our church. A few years after the Beatles’s appearance, my father’s sideburns grew a little longer.

Instead of forbidding dancing, my father’s church school was soon sponsoring grade-school dances, with a sufficient number of parent and faculty chaperones to discourage hug dancing.  And my brothers and I were not dissuaded from growing our hair a little longer, in imitation of the mop-heads from Liverpool.

Even later, in his next parish, my father, who was careful not to make political statements from the pulpit, persuaded the church elders to sponsor an extended family of Hmong refugees displaced by the Vietnam War. And when he became a district president and visited his African-American churches in Milwaukee, he was drawn in by the call-and- response sermons, and the music he heard, swaying awkwardly to the beat of bluesy gospel hymns.  (This, according to my mother.)

Maybe I’m not connecting the right dots here, but it seems to me that a lot of things started to change after the Beatles came to our church basement.

Our core theological beliefs did not change. We clearly understood that we were saved by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ as revealed in Holy Scripture. We believed that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. That He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. That no one comes to the Father except through Him. When some of my Walther League friends left the church, those of us who stayed confessed with Peter, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.  We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” 

Our core Lutheran beliefs and practices did not change, but for many of my generation, February 9, 1964, is as good a date as any to mark the beginning of the cultural shifts that have shaken us and taken us, for good and for ill, from “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to way beyond “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” 

 

Kurt Krueger has been a Lutheran teacher for forty-six years. A 1970 graduate of Valparaiso University, he is currently interim president of Concordia University in Irvine, California.

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