New Sweden. The first Lutherans in America were Swedes who assembled on the banks of the Delaware River in 1638 in the settlement of Sweden’s West India Company. New Sweden was served by a continuous line of ministers, the most famous of whom was John Campanius, a missionary to the Native Americans who translated Martin Luther’s Catechism into the Delaware language. The church languished after the Dutch drove the Swedes out in 1655. When the king of Sweden realized that the church had no ministers, he sent a large supply of books and three ministers, who arrived in 1697 and established the Holy Trinity at Tranhook Church near Wilmington, Delaware, and Gloria Dei at Wicaco near Philadelphia. For seventy-five years all national branches of the Lutheran Church were supervised by a provost or personal deputy of the archbishop of Sweden, who was allowed to ordain ministers. Unfortunately none was appointed between 1730 and 1748, which left the Lutherans
with no government during the most crucial years of their growth. Dutch laymen organized churches in New York, but the rules of the Amsterdam Consistory did not allow the ordination of a minister for America until 1657, and that man was expelled at the behest of the established Dutch Reform Church. After the English took over New York in 1664, more churches sprang up (fourteen by 1719) but with only one minister. Deacons and overseers were running these congregations just as the great emigration of Germans began. These loosely organized congregations were the prime targets of the pietistic sects who appeared at the same time. The pleas of laymen to the University of Halle for ministers went unheeded until Count Nikolaus von Zinzendorf arrived in 1741. He was an ordained Lutheran minister but was more interested in promoting the ecumenicalism of the Moravians and directed them to fill the pulpits. When Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, an energetic missionary with impeccable credentials, was sent by Halle in 1742, he found the pulpits of his three congregations occupied by others, including Count von Zinzendorf himself. After a month’s time he had reclaimed all three; within six years he joined Swedish and German pastors and lay delegates in the Pennsylvania Ministerium, which outlined a synodical organization, ordained ministers, consecrated churches, and prepared a book of common prayer. At the next meeting the delegates elected an overseer for all Swedish and German Lutheran churches. Muhlenberg held this office for many years, thus ensuring the firm roots of Lutheranism in America. However, the shortage of ministers continued, encouraging lay participation in simple services held in homes and barns which consisted of a sermon, prayer, hymns, Scripture reading, and benediction.
Fred W. Meuser, The Formation of the American Lutheran Church (Columbus, Ohio: Wartburg Press, 1958);
Sally Schwartz, “A Mixed Multitude”: The Struggle for Toleration in Colonial Pennsylvania (New York: New York University Press, 1987);
Abdel R. Wentz, A Basic History of Lutheranism in America (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1955).