Chapter 5: Lutheran Family
Consult the "Contents" pages to locate the entries in Part III, the Directory Listings Sections, that comprise this family.
During the Middle Ages the Roman Catholic Church was able to create a religious community that, however fragile, was able to unify most of Europe, from Italy and Spain in the South to Norway and Sweden in the North. After a number of centuries of control of religious life in the West, the reform movement begun by Martin Luther (1483–1546) not only challenged but broke the hegemony of the church in most of northern and western Europe. Luther's teachings, coupled with the power of the German princes who supported him, precipitated a dramatic break with Roman authority not only in Germany and Scandinavia (which embraced Lutheran ideas) but in Switzerland, Great Britain, and Holland. These countries followed Luther's lead away from the Roman Catholic Church, but in differing directions.
Lutheranism embraces the two basic precepts of Luther's writings: first, that salvation is by grace through faith alone; and second, that the Bible is the sole rule of faith and the sole authority for doctrine. Lutheranism is distinct from other Reformation churches because of its continued emphasis on a sacramental liturgy and because of Luther's understanding of the eucharist.
LUTHERAN DOCTRINE. Word and sacrament are the keystones of Lutheran church life. "Word" refers to the appeal to the Bible instead of to both the Bible and tradition. "Sacrament" refers to the high regard Lutherans have for the two sacraments they observe–baptism and the eucharist–and Luther's theology of the eucharist. Luther's belief that salvation is by grace through faith alone finds expression in Lutherans' interpretation of the Bible and reliance on it, and in their celebration of the sacraments.
A discussion of the importance of the Word to Lutherans must start with Luther's background. He was a Bible scholar and a professor at the University of Wittenburg in Germany. He translated the Bible into German and based his theology on the Bible. Before he broke with the Roman Catholic Church, he was an Augustinian monk who strove to merit salvation through ascetic practices. In studying the Bible, however, he found that salvation does not come by man's action but only by God's free gift. Thus comes the emphasis on man's sinfulness in Lutheranism: a person who breaks one law is as guilty as a person whose whole life is the breaking of laws. Luther saw that the whole point of Christ's coming was to bring salvation; human beings could not earn it by themselves.
It remains for each person to welcome grace by faith in Christ. This emphasis contrasts with the traditional Roman Catholic emphasis on both faith and good works. Further, this emphasis contradicts a practice popular in Luther's time–the selling of indulgences (by which people paid to cancel the punishment they would receive in purgatory for their sins). Proceeds from the sale of indulgences in Germany were being used, among other causes, to finance the building of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.
Luther's discovery that the righteousness (goodness) of God is humankind's only reason for hope came during the winter of 1513–14, in what is called his "tower experience," so named because it occurred while he was in the monastery tower. Among biblical passages supporting his doctrines are Romans 1:17: "For in it (the gospel of Jesus) the righteousness of God is revealed through faith, for faith. He who through faith is righteous shall live"; and Ephesians 2:8: "For by grace you have been saved through faith. This is not your own doing, but the gift of God, not because of works, lest anyone should boast."
Because of Gutenberg's invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century, Luther's translation of the Bible was made widely available. His translation of the New Testament was published in 1522, and the Old Testament in 1534, and they quickly became best-sellers in Germany. Lutherans then and now have used the Bible as their only standard for faith and doctrine. Further, Luther used it to counter a range of traditional Catholic elements. First, Luther found that only two sacraments, baptism and the eucharist, had a biblical basis. Hence Lutherans do not consider the following to be sacraments: penance, confession, holy orders, unction, and marriage. Second, Luther argued against a number of practices that Roman Catholics consider sanctioned by tradition if not by the Bible. For example, he argued that the celibate priesthood has no biblical basis, and he soon left the Augustinian order, in which he functioned as a priest, and married a former nun. Among pious practices Lutherans abandoned were monastic life, the veneration of relics, radical fasting, pilgrimages, hair-shirts, scourges, and the rosary. Lutheran piety instead developed around hearing the Word in the liturgy, receiving the eucharist, and reading the Bible. Third, Luther cited the Bible to counter the authority of the pope, and claimed the Bible as the source of his own authority to reform the church.
To discuss the importance of "sacrament" for Lutherans involves treating both Luther's understanding of the eucharist, and other elements discussed in the next section that make Lutheran liturgy distinctive.
Luther's doctrine of the eucharist is called consubstantiation, a departure from the Roman Catholic doctrine called transubstantiation. Luther suggested that Christ is present everywhere, but his presence is especially focused in the eucharist. The bread and wine still exist, but under the guise of bread and wine is Christ, who is received by the believer physically. This reception occurs, said Luther, because of Christ's promise at the Last Supper that it would occur. The doctrine of transubstantiation, on the other hand, suggests that the essence of bread and wine are replaced by the essence of Christ, who thus becomes present physically.
The doctrine of consubstantiation allowed Lutherans to preserve their liturgical worship instead of denying the sacraments altogether. So Lutheran liturgy is distinct from that of, for example, the Anabaptists, who do not have any sacraments, although they do observe a memorial meal as an ordinance. The consubstantiation doctrine also kept Lutherans from following the Reformed tradition, which replaces belief in Christ's physical presence in the sacramental elements with belief only in his spiritual presence in the eucharist.
LUTHERAN LITURGY. Lutheranism vies with the historic Catholic and Orthodox traditions for its emphasis on liturgy. In the early 1520s Luther began revising the Sunday service and found himself in conflict with those reformers, such as Andreas von Carlstadt, who looked for radical changes in the worship. Luther developed a form of worship in Wittenburg that followed the form of the Roman liturgy but that emphasized the use of the vernacular in preaching, in the liturgy, and in hymns. Vestments, candles, and pictures became optional. The church calendar remained in use.
Luther did change the format of the service by bringing the sermon into the worship, and on days when the eucharist was not served, a sermon substituted for it. Gregorian music was continued but gradually was replaced. The medieval outline that was standard for each liturgical service continued and remains basic in Lutheran liturgy. This outline is reflected in the Agenda, forms of worship adopted by the Lutheran churches in the United States in 1958.
No discussion of Lutheran liturgy would be complete without mention of Lutheran hymnology. All Protestants are familiar with Luther's "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," a popular anthem that became known as the battle hymn of the Reformation. In 1524 Luther published his first hymn book and a second was published before the year was out. The popular hymns not only spread Luther's ideas on man's sinfulness and God's righteousness, but became integral to the worship and distinguish Lutheran liturgy from most other liturgical services.
POLITY. Polity is largely a low-priority subject among Lutherans. Bishops, though rare, have not been entirely unknown. The tendency generally, however, is for churches to operate somewhere between a congregational polity and a form of presbyterianism in which power is vested in the synod or body of ministers.
Luther advocated cooperation between church and state. He said a Christian ruler, acting in a Christian manner, should govern the secular sphere, and the church should govern the religious sphere. Thus the Christian ruler and the church, each in their respective spheres, would oversee the activities of all the people in the state.
THE "CONFESSING" CHURCH. Luther's doctrinal insights and his criticisms of Roman Catholicism were first publicly presented in the Ninety-five Theses he nailed to the church door in Wittenburg in 1517, and then in the three treatises of 1521. His position did not find confessional status until 1530, with the Augsburg Confession. Princes who were following Luther and breaking the unity of the Roman Catholic Church had to account for that to the Holy Roman Emperor. So they presented the Augsburg Confession to him to explain their position. As written by Philip Melanchthon (1497–1560), a professor of Greek and a New Testament scholar at Wittenburg, it has remained the central statement of Lutheran essentials. It includes traditional Christian beliefs, those articulated during the conciliar era from the fourth to eighth centuries, such as belief in the Trinity and the resurrection of the body. But it goes further to elaborate on statements concerning humanity, specifically, on man's sinfulness, forgiveness of sin, and justification by grace through faith alone. Lutherans rallied around the Augsburg Confession, and Roman Catholics united against it. It became the standard under which Lutherans later entered the Thirty Years' War.
The Augsburg Confession began the practice of the "confessing" church. Typically, when pressed by a contemporary situation, Lutheran (and Reformed) churches will summarize a stance in the form of a "confession of faith" which says to the world, "Here we stand; we can do no other." In the twentieth century, for example, such statements were issued to counter Nazism.
To the Augsburg Confession were added other confessions and documents that further clarified a Lutheran position as opposed to other religions. These documents include the Larger and Small Catechism (1529), written by Luther, the Smalcald Articles (1537), and the Formula of Concord (1577). These, along with the three ecumenical creeds (the Apostles' Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Chalcedonian Creed), were collected in 1580 into the Book of Concord. This collection constitutes the basic body of Lutheran doctrinal writings, a clear statement of the truths Lutherans feel are taught in Scripture and the starting point for other theological endeavors.
ORIGINS. At least three dates vie with each other for the beginning of Lutheranism. The most widely accepted date is October 31, 1517, the day Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses for debate to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg. Outside the scholarly circles of Lutheran seminaries, this date goes virtually unrivaled as the beginning date not only of Lutheranism but also of the entire Reformation. Lutheran scholars have pointed out, however, that other dates are worthy of consideration. Some cite Luther's discovery of the meaning of the righteousness of God during the winter of 1513–14. This was the so-called "tower experience," which supplied the theological insights inherent in the Ninety-five Theses.
The third and most valid year for the origin of Lutheranism is 1530. The years 1514 and 1517 cannot really qualify as dates of origin because no Lutheran church existed then. The year 1530 brought the publishing of the Augsburg Confession. What had been an almost chaotic movement had a symbolic document around which to rally. The congregations that wished to identify with Luther could be said to have become a public entity.
LUTHERANS IN AMERICA. After 1530, Lutheranism spread in Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Norway. An independent church was established in each country. But when the Lutherans came to the U.S., they entered a vast country as compared to the smaller European states. Lutherans from any one European country were scattered throughout America, seeking good farm land especially in the Midwest and along the Southern seaboard. Everywhere they spread, each linguistic group established a synod, an autonomous Lutheran church. Each group was independent of the churches of other linguistic groups, and typically was independent of the churches in other American states. The rapid immigration in the nineteenth century led to the creation by 1850 of more than 150 separate independent Lutheran church bodies. Since that time, the major trend in the history of American Lutheranism has been the story of the merger of these 150 synods into the relatively few Lutheran churches today.
For no other family of American religions does national origin make such a difference. For example, the Roman Catholics, who came to the United States from all over Europe, remained one ecclesiastical entity when they arrived here. Roman Catholic immigrants from various national and linguistic groups did not create diverse denominational bodies. To give another example, most Methodists came to the U.S. from the British Isles and did not create churches divergent from the European Methodist churches (with two minor exceptions). For neither Catholics nor Methodists did national origin matter as much as for Lutherans.
Lutheranism did not enter North America by the establishment of the usual center on the Atlantic coast. It made its appearance, if briefly, in Manitoba, on Hudson's Bay. In 1619, the year before the Puritans landed in Massachusetts, Jens Munck, a Danish explorer, founded a colony at what is today known as Fort Churchill. Among the colonists was Rasmus Jensen (1579–1620), a Lutheran pastor. The colony prospered for several months until in the dead of winter scurvy began to kill its residents. Only three men remained to sail back to Denmark in the spring. It would be more than 100 years before a second group of Lutherans would arrive in what today is Canada, this time to a more hospitable climate in Nova Scotia.
During the 1740s Lutherans descended upon Nova Scotia from two directions. The first group arrived from Maine where a German colony had been created in 1740 by Samuel Waldo. They were part of an expedition to capture Louisburg from the French. After the battle, a few of the Germans remained and settled in the new English city of Halifax. There they were joined in 1749 by some Germans who came with the original 4,000 settlers and in 1750 by a group of about 300 German colonists. A church, St. George's, was organized and a building erected. The congregation, however, was continually beset by pastors who converted to Anglicanism. Eventually the church was lost, but not before a permanent Lutheran congregation was established at Lunenburg, a congregation still in place when the loyalist German subjects of King George who had been in America began to arrive in Canada after the American Revolution.
Lutheranism was first brought to the United States by Swedes who established a colony, Fort Christina, on the Delaware River in 1638. The Reverend Reorus Torkillus, the first Lutheran pastor in the New World, accompanied them. The Swedes were bolstered by the arrival of German Lutherans who began to settle in Pennsylvania in the last half of the century. By the middle of the eighteenth century, they were firmly entrenched in Pennsylvania and the surrounding territory. In March 1734 the Salzburgers created a third Lutheran center in Georgia.
In 1742 Henry Melchior Muhlenberg came to the colonies, and from his work and ministry, organized Lutheranism in America is dated. Installed as pastor of three congregations in Pennsylvania, he began to reach out to other parishes and to write Germany for continued help. In 1748 he led in the organization of the Ministerium of Pennsylvania, the first Lutheran synod in the colonies. He also opened his home to ministerial candidates. In 1792 a new constitution was adopted. Lay persons were first allowed to come to meetings of ministers in 1796, and the organizational tie to Germany was established in that year.
The decades following the war were ones of expansion and the addition of new synods–New York (1786), North Carolina(1803), Ohio (1818), Maryland (1820), and Tennessee (1820). The General Synod (1820) was a cooperating body for the various state synods. Accompanying the growth was the emergence of tension over the issue of Americanization. Theologian Samuel S. Schmucker became a leading "liberal" who advocated the use of English in worship and a strong "pietistic" emphasis (a stress on piety and religious experience instead of on rigid doctrinal conformity). Schmucker was opposed by the newly arriving immigrants, who came in great numbers in the second quarter of the century; they were orthodox and conservative.
Emerging as the leader of the "conservatives" was Carl Ferdinand Wilhelm Walther, who had migrated from Saxony in 1839. He published Der Lutheraner to argue his position and was influential in setting the form of Lutheranism for such synods as Missouri (1846), Buffalo (1845), and Iowa (1854).
During the middle of the century, the Scandinavian Lutherans began to arrive in great numbers and to form their own synods. The first Norwegian Synod was formed in 1846. The Swedes in the General Synod joined with recent immigrants to form the Augustana Synod in 1860. Lars Paul Esbjorn led the Swedish schism. Other synods were formed by the Danes (1872), Icelanders(1885), Finns (1890), and Slovaks (1902).
The great strength of Lutheranism shifted away from the East Coast in the nineteenth century and became dominant in the states north and west of Chicago. Centers were established along the Mississippi River at St. Louis, Rock Island, and Minneapolis.
The large influx of immigrants who took control away from the older, liberal eastern leaders like Schmucker delayed but could not avoid the problems created by Americanization. The use of English and adaptation to "American" mores increasingly plagued the church and reached its culmination during World War I. There is little doubt that English-speaking churches were able to fan the flames of prohibition by attacking their German brethren who supported German brewers such as Schlitz and Anheuser-Busch.
From the last quarter of the nineteenth century until the present time, the major thrust in the Lutheran family has been intrafamily ecumenism. Although Lutherans have entered ecumenical discussions with those of other faiths, these discussions have never reached the stage of definite plans for a merger. Within Lutheranism, however, there has been a century of merger by the multitude of independent synodical bodies established in the nineteenth century. Merger was usually preceded by the formation of cooperative councils. The more conservative Lutheran churches formed the Lutheran Synodical Conference in 1872. The conference included such synods as the Missouri Synod, the Synod of Evangelical Lutheran Churches, the Evangelical Lutheran Synod, and, until 1892, the three synods of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota. Only the Missouri Synod and the Synod of Evangelical Lutheran Churches remained in the Lutheran Synodical Conference. For all practical purposes, the conference fell apart, due to the Missouri Synod's negotiations through the 1960s with more liberal Lutheran bodies. The National Lutheran Council (1918–66) and the American Lutheran Conference became the arena for the largest number of mergers by various linguistic traditions as they became Americanized. Major mergers in the 1960s made these obsolete and they were replaced by the Lutheran Council in the U.S.A., in which the three larger churches participated: the Lutheran Church in America, the American Lutheran Church, and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. In 1977 the Missouri Synod withdrew from the council.
The withdrawal of the Missouri Synod from the Lutheran Council in the U.S.A. occurred during an internal controversy that was to bring conservative forces to the forefront of the synod's life. It also led to the withdrawal of many of the synod's more liberal members, those generally associated with Concordia Theological Seminary. Those who left the synod in 1976 formed the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches. They almost immediately joined into ongoing merger talks with the two larger Lutheran bodies, the Lutheran Church in America and the American Lutheran Church. That three-way merger was completed in 1987 and the new church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (1988) was officially inaugurated on January 1, 1988. The new church currently counts more than half of all Lutherans in the United States in its membership, though more than 2.5 million remain in the Missouri Synod. In the years immediately prior to the merger, a number of conservative theological and renewal movements had appeared in the two larger Lutheran churches. At the time of the merger, several of these became the nucleus around which emerged schismatic churches that rejected the merger.
In 1997, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (1988) took a major step in reconciling itself to the churches that grew out of the Reformation, namely the major churches of the Reformed tradition in America. It voted to share Communion and extend pulpit fellowship to the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Reformed Church in America, and the United Church of Christ. All four churches have had a longstanding mutual relationship through the National Council of Churches. A similar full-communion relationship was celebrated with the Moravian Church in America in 2000 and with the Episcopal Church on January 6, 2001. (In the meantime, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCA) and the Anglican Church of Canada also declared full communion with each other later that same year.) In taking these actions, the ELCA has further strained its relationship with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, with whom it does not share either Communion or pulpit fellowship.
THE APOSTOLIC LUTHERANS. One group, the Finnish Apostolic Lutherans, has developed to a large extent outside of the main thrust of Lutheran history in America. The product of an intense pietistic movement originating in a geographically isolated part of northern Scandinavia, and centered in a relatively isolated part of the United States, the Apostolics have moved along a distinct pathway, though still very Lutheran in faith and life. Their small numbers have, due to their splintering, accounted for a relatively large number of Lutheran church bodies.
In the 1840s, in northern Sweden in the area generally called Lapland, a young pastor, Lars Levi Laestadius, led a revival in the state church, the Swedish Lutheran Church. The movement was based on Laestadius' powerful preaching of repentance. The revival spread from Kaaresuvanto to all of northern Scandinavia. Characteristic of the revival were deep sorrow for sin, public confession of sin before the whole congregation, and the experience of deliverance. Among the leaders of the emerging revival was Juhani Raattamaa, a lay preacher. Raattamaa discovered the Power of the Keys, the practice of absolution by which a representative of the church laid hands on the penitent and pronounced forgiveness. The penitent was to believe these words as if Christ had pronounced them. The Laestadians believed that God sent times of visitation on all peoples and that there were Christians in all churches, but they laid emphasis on the need to follow the Bible to attain salvation.
Finns (Laplanders) and other Scandinavians from near the Arctic area began to migrate to America in the 1860s due to economic problems in Scandinavia. They settled in Minnesota and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Antti Vitikka began to preach among the Finns and in 1870 gathered a Laestadian group at Calumet, Michigan. The congregation called Solomon Korteniemi as their pastor and in 1872–73 organized the Solomon Korteniemi Lutheran Society. Korteniemi proved a poor leader and was succeeded by John Takkinen, sent from Sweden. Under his leadership in 1879 the name "Apostolic" Lutheran was chosen.
The Apostolic Lutherans grew and prospered in their American home but quickly became rent with controversy, which splintered them into five separate churches. Each faction goes under the name of Apostolic Lutheran and is distinguished by its nickname and its doctrine and practice. Only one group has organized formally as a church body.
The first schism in the Apostolic Lutheran movement occurred in the Calumet congregation in 1888. Members opposed to the "harsh rule" of Takkinen elected John Roanpaa and seized the church property. In 1890 Arthur Leopold Heideman arrived from Lapland to serve this new congregation.
In Europe in 1897, the Laestadians split into the Church of the First Born and the Old Laestadians. In America, the Takkinen congregation aligned with the Church of the First Born and the followers of Arthur Heideman aligned with the Old Laestadians.
Another schism occurred in Europe when a Pietist party, called the New Awakening, left its Pietist church in Finland. In 1910 the New Awakening sent Mikko Saarenpaa and Juho Pyorre to America.
These three prime groups, the Old Laestadians, the Church of the First Born, and the New Awakening, share the common Laestadian Lutheran doctrinal heritage as transmitted through Raattamaa. Raattamaa had taught that justification and conversion came by hearing the Gospel preached by the church of Christ. The New Awakening, however, believed that conversion could occur without hearing the Word. The New Awakening accused the Laestadians of moral laxity and emphasized a strict moral life. The New Awakening also departed from the other Laestadians on their belief in the "third use of the law," i.e., that the Ten Commandments were in force for Christians. For the Old Laestadians the only law was the law of Christ, the commandments of love. The Old Laestadians tended to believe that the church must be outwardly one. Hence they tended to be ultra-exclusivist.
A fourth schism occurred among the Old Laestadians when an emphasis on evangelism–redemption, forgiveness, and the righteousness of Christ–was opposed to an emphasis on Christian life and conduct and the repentance from sin. The evangelicals were inspired by the fervent preaching of Heideman and felt that the preaching of free grace would produce good fruit of itself.
The Apostolic Lutherans have always had a congregational government, in part a reaction to Scandinavian Lutheran episcopacy. Like other extreme congregationalists, they have resisted organization but can be distinguished by doctrinal position, periodicals, and foreign alignments.
Sources–The Lutheran Family
The study of American Lutheranism is focused through the Lutheran Historical Conference, 801 DeMun Ave., St. Louis, MO 63105, which publishes Lutheran Historical Conference Essays and Reports. Major archival depositories are at the headquarters of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 8765 W. Higgins Rd., Chicago, IL 60631, and at Concordia Historical Institute, on the campus of Concordia Theological Seminary (a seminary of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod) in St. Louis.
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Lehman, Hartmut. Martin Luther in the American Imagination. Munich, Germany: W. Fink, 1988. 349 pp.
Lohse, Bernhard. Martin Luther's Theology : Its Historical and Systematic Development. Trans. by Roy A. Harrisville. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999.
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The Lutheran Church Worldwide
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Lutherans in North America: Historical
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