Earl S. Erb
Rev. Earl S. Erb, once described as a revolutionary and leader in advocating a new missionary philosophy, would log approximately 500,000 miles while traveling in his capacity as executive secretary for the Board of Foreign Missions of the United Lutheran Church in America (ULCA) and then its successor, the Board of World Missions of the Lutheran Church in America (LCA).
Born on March 4, 1899, in East Greenville, Pennsylvania, Earl Styer Erb was an avid student athlete and a standout in tennis and track and field. After college he enrolled at Mt. Airy Theological Seminary, later known as the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, where he graduated in 1923 and received a bachelor of divinity in 1925.
He served as a parish pastor from 1923-1940. In 1941 the Ministerium of Pennsylvania appointed Rev. Erb Executive Secretary for the Board of Christian Education. He remained there until 1944 when he was appointed Secretary of Benevolence for the Ministerium. He served in that office until 1953 and from 1946-1953 also served as the Secretary of the Ministerium. In 1947 Rev. Erb received an honorary doctor of divinity degree from Muhlenberg College.
Dr. Erb first became involved in the mission work of the ULCA when he was elected to its Board of Foreign Missions in 1950. He served as a board member until 1953. It was in 1951 that the board appointed him to the post of Commissioner of the BFM to the Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church of India (AELC). Dr. Erb was sent because of the fact that he had not been a missionary and could be perceived as a neutral party. The problems that existed pertained to the AELC’s inability to communicate or negotiate directly with the ULCA. Their requests, questions, and concerns had to first be channeled through the ULCA’s India Mission Council. The AELC wanted more freedom and direct contact with the ULCA. The ULCA work in India had been very much missionary-oriented. Dr. Erb worked as commissioner for a year and in that time was able to alleviate the problem by suggesting changes to the constitution of the Mission Council as well as to the constitution of the AELC.
Dr. Erb believed his work as Commissioner was a factor in becoming BFM Executive Secretary. Elected at the July 1952 BFM meeting, Dr. Erb took office February 1953. He became secretary at a time when throughout areas in which the ULCA worked, there was a spirit of anticolonialism. Twenty nations since WWII had gained their independence. The challenge for Dr. Erb was to guide mission work through this turbulent time while recognizing that it presented an opportunity for the church’s mission work to evolve into a more partnership-based approach.
The work of the Lutheran church is a fellowship. It is not a question if there is a place for the missionary or the national, but as to what place each should fill.
In 1962 when the ULCA merged with three other Lutheran churches to become the Lutheran Church in America (LCA), Dr. Erb became Executive Secretary of the LCA’s Board of World Missions. He continued the work he began with the ULCA and incorporated the mission areas of the other merging churches. Dr. Erb continued to rely heavily on travel to these areas as a way of maintaining a personal relationship with the indigenous churches.
In addition to his work for the ULCA and LCA, Dr. Erb also served in posts in other Lutheran and ecumenical organizations, as well as those related to his academic career at Muhlenberg College. After Dr. Erb retired in 1967, he remained active within the church in his involvement with the Southeast Pennsylvania Synod of the LCA and through service to his community on committees focusing on work with senior citizens. In 1985 the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia awarded him its first alumni award for distinguished service.
This series comprises bound notebooks containing handwritten notes of Dr. Earl S. Erb. These notebooks contain observations, meeting notes, decisions, plans for the board, facts pertaining to his travel, items about the local culture, comments, and stories recorded by Dr. Erb when he was traveling overseas visiting the mission fields in which the ULCA and LCA administered or partnered in mission endeavors. The notebooks are from 1951-1967. Also in this series is an undated photo album of black and white pictures taken of India. The collection is also available on microfilm.