Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

My memories of Fr. Richard go back to his beginning and before. He was the second son of my sister, Ella Prange, and Pastor Clemens Neuhaus. The story begins in a little Arkansas town on the White River. The town was named Crockett’s Bluff, where the legendary Davy Crockett swam the river on his way to the Alamo. Ella was the third daughter of Christian Frederick Prange, who owned a retail store and other enterprises in Arkansas County. Clemens Neuhaus was a Lutheran seminary student who came to Crocket’s Bluff as an intern for the newly formed Lutheran Church“Missouri Synod.

Ella was a slender and very attractive young girl. Clem was a husky and vigorous young man who loved to hunt and fish. This attracted him to the primitive wilderness across the river from Crockett’s Bluff. Clem was all man and Ella was all woman. The two of them matched perfectly. Clem was a very direct kind of man. He could walk up to a stranger, grasp him by the belt, and twist him over his head with one arm. He was as masculine as Ella was feminine. They were a dynamic couple and produced eight dynamic children, including Richard.

Clem assumed a pastorate in Pembroke, Ontario, where Richard was born. He was a conservative and as vigorous in his theology as he was in his daily life. At one time, Clem was president of the Ontario District of the Lutheran Church“Missouri Synod.

The eight Neuhaus children were exuberant like their father and proved to be too much for Ella, who weighed only ninety pounds at her best. By mutual agreement, the children were sent south. The daughters were sent to other relatives, and Richard and his twin brothers were sent down to Cisco, Texas. Richard helped my mother in a little roadside business she had near the town of Romney. Richard described this in various ways when he talked about his Texas experience. The twins and Richard were raised by our family and my sister Mary Elizabeth. The twins had their own language and called tractors chichebow and they called me Uncle Yo Yo .

At that time I assumed that Richard’s theology was much like his father’s and mine. We entrusted him to the familiar arms of the local Lutheran Church “Missouri Synod. I think one incident was perhaps a road marker in his theological development. The summer when he was about fourteen or fifteen years old, he was visiting his father in Pembroke. It just so happened that I also was visiting. At the time, I had just returned from a three-year stint in the U.S. Army. I was a first-line interpreter and linguist and took an active part in the battle of Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge. The war had changed me. And at the wizened old age of thirty-three, I was about to enter Concordia Lutheran Seminary in St. Louis.

Accompanying me on the visit to Canada was my good friend, Dr. William Backus, a graduate seminary student (and later a clinical psychologist and successful author and lecturer). We drove to Canada in my new Chevrolet and stayed at the Neuhaus residence in Pembroke. I had planned a weekend fishing trip at the family cabin.

The fishing trip was only partially successful, but the conversation was rewarding. Richard sat at the feet of two nonconformist theologians that weekend and was enthralled. He had never heard anything like this before in his conventional theological journey.

We made fun of Richard’s corny Missouri Synod theology. “Richard, surely you can’t believe all the things that they are teaching,” was our favorite reply to his theological platitudes. When we got back to the Neuhaus home, Richard tried to share some of his new insights with his father. But orthodox dad was less than thrilled. He made Dr. Backus and me feel less than welcome, so we packed up our things and cut our visit short.

About eight months before he died, Richard sent me a letter in which he talked about this fishing weekend. Dr. Backus had died shortly before, so I was the only recipient. In this letter he stated that Dr. Backus and I had tried to turn him into a maverick theologian that summer. The letter concluded that, after much experience and countless words, he would have to admit that we had succeeded.

Neither Dr. Backus nor I were a match for this astute wordsmith, but we can take a little blame for how he turned out. The disciples were fishermen, and so were we.

We didn’t catch many fish, but we did catch a whale of a theologian. Without trying to analyze his monumental word production, I can believe that we, by the grace of God, left a small mark on his verbal cathedral, while Richard left a large mark on ­Christendom.

The Reverend Erwin E. Prange is a retired Lutheran Church“Missouri Synod pastor and the uncle of Richard John Neuhaus. Ninety-one years old, he lives in Eden Prairie, Minnesota.