Story Magazine - Fourth Quarter, 2004

In Memory: Jennings Mergenthal

Jennings Mergenthal, '62, Luther Seminary Bookstore manager for 37 years, died Oct. 1. Under his tenure, the bookstore became one of the premier theological bookstores in the nation.

As a young man, Mergenthal's body was crushed in a farming accident, leaving him paralyzed from the arms down. He spent four years building up his upper body strength to regain mobility with the help of crutches. In 1955 he attended Concordia College. He also took a correspondence course in accounting, allowing him to sit for the CPA testing. Sensing a call to pastoral ministry, Mergenthal enrolled at Luther Theological Seminary in 1959. At Luther, Mergenthal ran the student-owned and -run dining services and bookstore.With his financial background, he was able to operate the student cooperatives in the black for the first time.

Told he could not consider pastoral ministry because of his physical limitations, Mergenthal finished his coursework instead of going on internship. But with the assistance of his home church, he spent a year in an unofficial internship. In 1966, Mergenthal accepted an offer from Luther President Alvin Rogness to return to seminary as coordinator of the bookstore, dining hall and coffee shop. Eventually the bookstore split off from the other services, with Mergenthal at the helm. He went on to create a theological collection that has garnered national and international esteem. In the process, he also created a unique ministry to pastors. "It would probably be safe to say that Jennings knew more pastors in the ELCA than anyone," said friend and former classmate Alan Solmonson, '63.

Still sensing a call to pastoral ministry, Mergenthal served as a weekend pastor from 1965 to 1986 to churches in South Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin that could not afford a pastor. "His crutches did not prohibit him from preaching, teaching and visitation," Solmonson said. "Jennings could have very easily become bitter and 'turned away' from the church, but instead he embraced it and gave himself to it. Jennings knew what was important. He let go of that which wasn't.

"We need to hear the story of this wonderful servant who gave his life for the church," Solmonson said. "We need to hear it and give thanks to God for his gift of ministry, his ministry of books, his ministry in the parishes he served, his ministry in the congregation to which he belonged, his ministry to all of us, the universal church of Jesus Christ!"