Lutheran Churches in North America

views updated


A century after the beginning of the Protestant reformation the first Lutherans migrated from Europe to North America. During the 17th century there were relatively

few of them in the New World, but in the next century their numbers increased and they came to be scattered along the entire Atlantic seaboard. In the course of the 19th century and down to the beginning of World War I, large waves of immigration carried even more Lutherans to North America, and many of them settled in the Middle West and then the Far West. As a consequence, Lutheran churches were in time established in all states of the United States and most provinces of Canada.

Just as the appearance and the numerical strength of Lutherans in North America can be accounted for largely by colonization and immigration, so the structures of church life that developed can be understood only against the background of the successive waves of immigration from a variety of European countries. More than any other Protestant family of churches, Lutherans in North America were distinguished by great diversity of national origins. The language and culture of each national group were perpetuated for several generations, and not until the process of acculturation enabled all to adopt the same tongue and similar patterns of life was it possible to express in unity of ecclesiastical organization the remarkable unanimity that had all along existed in faith and doctrine.

Colonial Beginnings, 16191775. Apart from a short-lived settlement of Danes on Hudson Bay (1619), the earliest Lutheran colonists were in New Netherland, on the Hudson River (1623), and in New Sweden, on the Delaware River (1638). In the former there were Norwegian and German as well as Dutch Lutherans, but all accommodated themselves to the Dutch language and Dutch models of congregational organization and worship, although ministers were sent to them from Hamburg as well as Amsterdam. In New Sweden, on the other hand, the colonists were Swedish and Finnish, their ministers were sent to them from Sweden, and the whole complexion of church life was colored by the traditions of the Church of Sweden. After both colonies had been lost to England (1664) and in time became predominantly English in character, the descendants of the early colonists gradually became Anglicized and demanded church services in their adopted tongue. This in miniature is what happened again and again among Lutherans in North America.

More Lutherans made their way to America in the 18th century, and the vast majority were German speaking. Entering the New World through the ports of Halifax, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Charleston, and Savannah, they soon moved inland along water courses and in time established settlements as far west as the Appalachian mountain range. Some colonists, such as the Palatines in New York and the Salzburgers in Georgia, were accompanied by clergymen; but for the most part laymen conducted public worship until clergymen were sent to them. Most ministers came from Halle, in Saxony, the center of German pietism, and helped give colonial Lutheranism a pietistic stamp. The recognized leader was Henry Melchior muhlenberg, who journeyed often from his home in southeastern Pennsylvania to instill hope and introduce order among his scattered fellow Lutherans. He was a personal link between the descendants of the older Dutch-and Swedish-speaking Lutherans and the newer German-speaking colonists. He made provision for a better supply of ministers and for a form of congregational organization adapted to American conditions. He also helped create the Lutheran Ministerium of North America (1748), intended to unite all the ministers, and through them the congregations, in fellowship and common action. Between 1700 and 1775 the enrolled membership of Lutheran churches increased from an estimated 3,000 to about 40,000, although there were many more nominal Lutherans.

Uncertainty and Compromise, 17751855. From the beginning of the American Revolution to about 1830 Lutheran immigration was at a virtual standstill. Contacts with the Old World and its Lutherans became more and more attenuated. Descendants of the German colonists, especially in the larger towns and wherever they were in a minority, adopted English speech by the third generation. As a consequence German services began to be replaced by English services in many churches. The adoption of English often was accompanied by an imitation of practices current in other Protestant churchesa change that was in a measure prepared for by the earlier pietism.

Although there was little new immigration, there was migration westward and northward to new frontiers. Such geographical expansion was accompanied by the reduction of the original ministerium to eastern Pennsylvania and the organization of additional district synods: New

York (1786), North Carolina (1803), Ohio (1818), Maryland-Virginia (1820), Tennessee (1820), South Carolina (1824), West Pennsylvania (1825), Pittsburgh (1845), Illinois (1851), and Iowa (1855). In order to prevent such a proliferation of synods from destroying Lutheran unity, the General Synod was formed in 1821 as a union of synods. For the training of ministers it established a theological seminary (1826) in Pennsylvania and sent missionaries to fields at home and abroad. Samuel Simon schmucker was the outstanding leader of this period in educational and missionary projects. Other theological seminaries were founded in New York (1815), Ohio (1830 and 1845), and South Carolina (1830), in addition to a half-dozen colleges. Among other less enduring periodicals a weekly church paper, the Lutheran Observer, was launched in 1831, and another, the Lutheran Standard, in 1843. Enrolled Lutheran membership rose from about 40,000 in 1775 to approximately 225,000 in 1855.

Confessional Revival, 18551914. With the resumption of immigration about 1830, the way was prepared for a new epoch. The tide of immigrants crossing the Atlantic between 1830 and 1914 changed the social and religious complexion of North America in many ways. In addition to the unprecedented influx of Roman Catholics, probably four million people of at least nominal Lutheran background made their way to the New World from Germany, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. Toward the end of the period smaller numbers of Icelandic, Finnish, Slovak, and Hungarian Lutherans joined the movement. Although the descendants of Lutherans who had come to America before the Revolution had been developing more effective ecclesiastical organizations and had been erecting educational and other institutions, they were ill prepared for the avalanche of new immigrants. The Americanization in doctrine and practice as well as in language had progressed so far that the newcomers appeared to be not only cultural foreigners but also ecclesiastical strangers.

The consequence was that (apart from the many who were not reached by the church at all) the new immigrants usually established church organizations of their own, especially in the Middle West, where they settled in largest concentrations. The Missouri Synod was formed in 1847 by Lutherans from Germany, under the leadership of Carl Ferdinand William walther. Some withdrew from this synod and founded the German Iowa Synod in 1854, when Walther was charged with undue rigidity in questions of ecclesiastical polity. The Joint Synod of Ohio, which had before been associated with Missouri, also broke away in 1881 after disagreement about the doctrine of predestination, and before this, in 1850, the Wisconsin Synod came into being. Although these four German synods carried state names in their titles, they quickly expanded far beyond the frontiers of the states in which they were organized. Meanwhile several synods were formed by immigrants from Norway; one reflected the opposition of its leader to anything that suggested the state church in his homeland, and another represented greater sympathy with the traditions of the Church of Norway. In 1860 the Augustana Synod was organized by Swedish immigrants under the guidance of Lars P. esbjÖrn; this body at first included some Norwegians, but it soon became exclusively Swedish. Danish immigrants inherited two divergent tendencies from their homeland and formed separate bodies in America in 1872 and 1896. In 1890 the Suomi Synod was organized among Finnish immigrants, but in this case, too, there were dissidents who established independent bodies. In addition, two Slovak synods and an Icelandic synod were formed.

Two things characterized this proliferation of independent synods. One was the establishment of congregations and then of synods along national lines. This was almost inevitable if the immigrants were to be ministered to in their own languages and in accordance with the practices to which they had been accustomed. A second was a tendency toward separation even within national groups. The absence of ecclesiastical supervision from Europe and the spirit of free enterprise in America contributed to such division. The fact of the matter is that more of the immigrants would have been lost to the church than was the case if laymen and ministers had not taken initiative and assumed authority to act.

Further division occurred during the Civil War, when Lutheran synods in the South withdrew from the predominantly northern General Synod and in 1863 formed what later came to be called the United Synod in the South. After the Civil War, in 1867, some other synods withdrew from the General Synod and united with several independent synods (notably the Swedish Augustana Synod) to form the General Council in protest against what was regarded as an extreme accommodation in the former general body to American revivalism and puritanism. Another, and looser, federation of synods came into being in 1872, when the Missouri Synod joined with what was to be called the Joint Synod of Wisconsin, a small Norwegian group, and for a time the Joint Synod of Ohio to form the Synodical Conference. These four general bodies of LutheransGeneral Synod, United Synod in the South, General Council, and Synodical Conferencecontinued to exist to the time of World War I. Although many large synods remained outside and independent of them, these general bodies were testimonies, however muted, to a longing for Lutheran unity.

In spite of organizational fragmentation, such unity was actually in the making, although it usually remained concealed under linguistic and other differences that occasionally exploded in controversy. The second half of the 19th century was marked by a recovery, on the part of virtually all Lutherans, of the theology of 17th century orthodoxism and by a reintroduction of the forms of worship of that and the preceding century. The confessions of faith included in the Book of concord (1580), especially the augsburg confession and Luther's Small Catechism, were not only appealed to but diligently studied, and this strengthened the inner bonds of unity. Such confessionalism was combined with pietism, which marked most of the Lutheran immigrants of the 19th century as well as those of the 18th. This combination produced zealous activity in domestic missions, which reached to the Pacific coast, and in foreign missions. In these same years baptized membership increased from about 225,000 to about three million.

Growing Unity and Enterprise in the 20th Century. The unity that was a hope before World War I became more and more of a reality after 1914. By this time the second and third generations of 19th-century immigrants were adopting the English tongue, and the war itself gave a tremendous impetus to the abandonment of languages other than English. The linguistic barriers that had separated English-speaking from German-speaking Lutherans, Norwegian-speaking from Finnish-speaking Lutherans, etc., now broke down. In 1917 all Lutherans were able to join hands in preparation for and the celebration of the 400th anniversary of the Reformation. This commemoration of Martin Luther's posting of the 95 Theses made Lutherans more aware of their common heritage. When the United States became a participant in World War I, most Lutheran bodies joined in the creation of the National Lutheran Commission for Soldiers' and Sailors' Welfare, and in 1918 this agency was enlarged in its scope and transformed into the National Lutheran Council. The Missouri Synod and a smaller synod that were not originally associated in the National Lutheran Council joined their fellow Lutherans in 1967 in a reorganization of the agency, named the Lutheran Council in the U.S.A. This unity, however, lasted for only two years, when in 1969 the Missouri Synod broke away to go on its own.

While these things were happening, a series of mergers reduced the number of Lutheran church bodies from 25 to 3. In 1917 three bodies of Norwegian provenance united to form the Norwegian Lutheran Church, soon called the Evangelical Lutheran Church. The following year the General Synod, General Council, and United Synod in the South merged to establish the United Lutheran Church and were shortly joined by small Icelandic and Slovak synods. In 1930 the Joint Synod of Ohio, the Iowa Synod, and the Buffalo Synodall of German extraction and predominantly Middle Westernunited to form the American Lutheran Church. In 1960 the two bodies that had just come into being through mergers in 1917 and 1930 entered a new union together with smaller synods of Norwegian and Danish origin to comprise the American Lutheran Church. In 1962 the United Lutheran Church merged with the Augustana (of Swedish origin), the Suomi (of Finnish), and the American Evangelical Lutheran (Danish) Churches to form the Lutheran Church in America. In this way, more than 90 percent of the Lutherans in North America in the 1960s and 1970s came to be organized in three churches: the Lutheran Church in America (LCA), the American Lutheran Church (ALC), and the Lutheran ChurchMissouri Synod. What was especially significant is that these mergers brought together Lutherans of diverse national origins and ended the previous tendency toward isolation of different language groups.

Hopes for Lutheran unity, however, received a setback when at the 1969 convention of the Missouri Synod the newly organized conservative wing succeeded in electing J. A. O. Preus to the presidency. His election meant an opposition to ecumenism except through confessional agreement. In spite of Preus's opposition the agreement on pulpit and altar fellowship with the ALC was passed. Nevertheless, Preus took his election as a mandate for restructuring the Missouri Synod along conservative lines. This attempt led to a major floor fight at the 1971 convention over how strictly binding were synod doctrinal statements. Preus also saw the agreement of both ALC and LCA on the ordination of women as reopening the whole fellowship question. While the Missouri Synod did not rescind its agreement of fellowship with the ALC, the resulting turmoil pushed the ALC closer to the LCA position on Lutheran unity, i.e., the Lutheran confessions are sufficient basis for unity and extra-confessional agreements are not necessary. As the Missouri Synod's doctrinal position hardened, several churches broke away from the Missouri Synod in 1976 to form the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches (AELC).

The gradual rapprochement between the LCA and the ALC sowed the seeds for further developments in Lutheran unity in the early 1980s. On January 1, 1988, three Lutheran churchesthe LCA, the ALC, and the AELC merged to form the evangelical lutheran church in america (ELCA). The ELCA plays an active role in the Lutheran World Federation, the national council of churches of christ in the u.s.a., and the world council of churches. In 1997 the ELCA entered into full communion with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the United Church of Christ, and the Reformed Church in America. This was followed in 1999 by full communion relations with the Moravian Church in America and the Episcopal Church, U.S.A.

Bibliography: a. r. wentz, A Basic History of Lutheranism in America (Philadelphia 1955). f. w. meuser, The Formation of the American Lutheran Church (Columbus, Ohio 1958). e. c. nelson and e. l. fevold The Lutheran Church among Norwegian-Americans, 2 v. (Minneapolis 1960). w. o. forster, Zion on the Mississippi (St. Louis 1953). g. e. arden, Augustana Heritage (Rock Island, Ill. 1963). p. c. nyholm, The Americanization of the Danish Lutheran Churches in America (Minneapolis 1963). e. schlink, The Theology of the Lutheran Confessions, tr. p. f. koehneke and h. j. a. bouman (Philadelphia 1961). l. d. reed, The Lutheran Liturgy (Philadelphia 1960). c. j. i. bergendoff, The Doctrine of the Church in American Lutheranism (Philadelphia 1956). f. s. mead, s. s. hill, and c. d. atwood, eds., Handbook of Denominations in the United States (Nashville 2001).

[t. g. tappert/

j. k. luoma/eds.]

About this article

Lutheran Churches in North America

Updated About content Print Article