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Lutherans in America

Summary and Keywords

Lutherans are one branch of Protestant Christianity and have been in America for almost 400 years. Historically they have immigrated to America from Lutheran countries in Europe, especially Germany and Scandinavia. Immigrants during the eighteenth century founded Lutheran congregations in the middle colonies, while westward expansion and further immigration from Europe centered Lutherans in the American Midwest. Lutherans formed regional and national denominations based on geography, ethnicity, and theological differences, In the twentieth century they continued to grow, and mergers reduced the numbers of denominations by 1988 to two major denominations: the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. In 2015 there were close to seven million Lutherans in America.

Keywords: Luther, Lutheran, Lutheranism, Augsburg Confession, American Lutherans, immigration, confessionalism, synod


Lutheranism is the oldest branch of Protestant Christianity, tracing its origins to Martin Luther in the sixteenth century. Luther’s questioning of the theology and structure of the medieval Roman church, beginning with his Ninety-Five Theses, October 31, 1517, led to a widening rift between his followers and the medieval Papacy. In the 1520s this rift hardened into a permanent break, as a number of the northern and central German territories of the Holy Roman Empire adopted Luther’s new Evangelical theology and began to implement it into the churches in their areas. An Imperial council called for Augsburg in the summer of 1530 was not able to bridge the widening gaps between the new Evangelicals (popularly, Lutherans) and the official Roman church and its Imperial supporters. The theological “protest,” or confession of faith developed by the Lutherans for this meeting (the Augsburg Confession, or Confessio Augustana) became the seminal document defining their theological and ecclesiastical traditions, and remains the core document for all Lutherans. In Germany, new Lutheran churches were established in a number of northern and central German territories, and through the 1530s and 1540s into the Scandinavian countries, as well. The Lutheran territories came into armed conflict with the Holy Roman Empire, but won legal recognition in the Peace of Augsburg in 1555. After the death of Martin Luther in 1546, the Lutherans began to quarrel internally over a number of theological issues, questions that were largely settled with the adoption of the Formula of Concord in 1577, and all the Lutheran confessional documents were gathered into the Book of Concord (Concordia) in 1580. Catholic forces attempted to defeat the Protestant territories in the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), but the war degenerated into a stalemate, and religious peace was restored with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Lutherans dominated northern and central Germany and Scandinavia, with minority settlements in southern Germany and areas of Eastern Europe. During the seventeenth century Lutherans codified their theology during the period known as “Lutheran Orthodoxy,” developing highly structured systematic theologies, along with a rich tradition of hymnody and devotion. Later in the seventeenth century, as the original zeal of this reforming movement waned, new reforming theologians (referred to as Pietists) started to push for internal reforms within Lutheranism, which were often resisted by officials of the state-controlled established Lutheran Churches. As a reforming movement, Pietism had a significant impact on the lives of European Lutherans during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but not without conflict. European Lutherans began to immigrate to North America in the seventeenth century, and later to South Africa, South America, and Australia, where they formed significant Lutheran churches. Beginning in the eighteenth century, Lutheran missionaries began work in India, China, and southern and eastern Africa, forming new indigenous churches in these areas. Today Lutheranism is growing significantly in the Global South (Africa, Asia, and Latin America), while the movement is declining somewhat in North America, and significantly more in the traditional European State Churches.

Lutheranism in Colonial America

The first Lutherans in North America were members of a Danish expedition searching for the “Northwest Passage” to Asia in 1619. They were trapped in Hudson’s Bay over the winter, and the Lutheran pastor they brought with them, Rasmus Jensen, died there in 1620. There were two Scandinavian attempts to establish colonies in the New World, the first by the Swedes along the Delaware River from 1638 to 1655, and the other by the Danes in the Virgin Islands after 1672, and both saw the establishment of official Lutheran congregations in these places. Some of the Danish Lutheran congregations still remain in the Virgin Islands, as do colonial Swedish congregations, though the latter became Episcopalian after the Revolutionary War. There were a number of Lutherans in the Dutch colony of New Netherlands during the seventeenth century, but opposition from the local Dutch Reformed pastors hindered the development of Lutheran congregations. The oldest continuous Lutheran congregation in the United States is a parish formed in the New Netherlands in 1649. Despite opposition and hardships these Lutherans were eventually able to secure a few pastors from Germany, but many colonial congregations went years between having a resident pastor. The bulk of colonial Lutherans, however, were immigrants from Germany who came to America for economic improvement and to escape poverty and warfare in Europe. These immigrants rarely came in massed groups, but generally as scattered individuals and families. A number came as indentured servants, who toiled in bondage for a term (usually seven years) in return for their passage to America. There were groups of German Lutheran refugees resettled by the British in North America, including a group of Palatinate Germans from Southwest Germany who were brought to New York after 1708, and Lutherans from Salzburg, Austria, who settled in Georgia after 1734. Other German Lutheran immigrants arrived in the eighteenth century to the Carolinas and Virginia, who mainly settled inland as small farmers.

The Lutherans were scattered and economically stressed, which made forming Lutheran congregations difficult. Most Lutherans settled in the middle colonies, from New York to Maryland, with the majority settling in Pennsylvania. These immigrants continued to speak German in America, and often grouped together in religiously mixed communities, with Lutherans, Reformed, and Moravians, sometimes even forming mixed, “Union” congregations. Making the transition from State Church Lutheranism in Europe to the free and voluntary religious system of Colonial America was practically and conceptually difficult. It was hard to form Lutheran congregations given the immigrant’s poverty, governmental indifference, and the lack of adequate pastoral leadership. Few State Church Lutheran pastors wished to leave their comfortable European parishes to brave the long and dangerous trans-Atlantic voyage, all for a life of poverty and struggle in America. The Lutheran congregations in the North America often went years without pastoral leadership, and many of the pastors who did come to America were failures from Europe, or even clerical imposters. The first Lutheran pastor, Justus Falckner, was ordained in America in 1703, but only a few such pastors were developed in colonial America. Slowly Lutheran congregations were formed and took root, but these were localized developments, and there were no organized efforts beyond those individual congregations.

The first Lutheran leader in America was William Berkenmeyer, an Orthodox Lutheran pastor sent by the Lutheran Ministerium in Hamburg to New York in 1725. Berkenmeyer labored faithfully to gather together the scattered (and fractious) Lutheran congregations in New York and New Jersey, but with limited success. The real leader of colonial American Lutheranism was Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, sent by the Pietist Halle Institution to Pennsylvania in 1742. Muhlenberg was theologically and temperamentally well suited to the American religious situation and began to build connections between Lutherans in America. Initially, he had to fend off challenges to his leadership from rogue pastors and from the Moravian leader, Ludwig von Zinzendorf. Muhlenberg also acted quickly to draw together the scattered Lutheran pastors and congregations, forming the Pennsylvania Ministerium in 1748, which existed to regulate and examine Lutheran pastors, to settle internal disputes, and to improve the fortunes of Lutherans in America. Though Muhlenberg never had any formal appointment beyond his local parish call, through his personal leadership he became the recognized patriarch of colonial American Lutheranism.

Lutherans developed a rich congregational life in colonial America, and these congregations became the center of life for the German immigrants. The congregation existed not only to serve the religious needs of the German-Americans, but provided education and cultural life for the local community. Given the fact that in America the lay people had to organize and run the congregations themselves, the usual power differential between lay people and their pastors had to be readjusted. Lay people demanded and received entry and eventually representation in the Pennsylvania Ministerium. Pastors had to become entrepreneurs, farming land provided by the congregation to support their families. Many successful pastors married local women, cementing kinship relationships, and starting clerical dynasties that stretched across generations. Few pastors came from Europe, but were developed locally, young candidates who apprenticed with established pastors.

Colonial Lutherans developed a network of congregations centered in Pennsylvania, but stretching from Georgia to New York, with scattered congregations in Maine and the Canadian province of Nova Scotia. Lutherans were mainly farmers, often seeking better farmland, and thus constantly moving toward the frontier foothills of the Appalachians, and down the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. In the South they moved into the upland areas of the Carolinas. Though they were nearly all ethnic Germans, they came into contact with English and other European settlers, Native Americans, and African Americans. The language barriers limited their interactions with other European settlers, while the withdrawal of Native Americans made for only fleeting contacts. Southern Lutheran leaders were originally opposed to slavery, but economic pressures on Lutheran lay people forced a change in this stance; enslaved and free African Americans were occasionally included in Lutheran congregations.

Rising tensions between the American colonists and the British monarchy dominated the middle of the eighteenth century, leading to armed rebellion by the colonists in 1775. American Lutherans tended to view this as an “English” problem (and not of their concern), but the pressures of war and rebellion pressed upon all communities, especially since the main theater of warfare was in the middle colonies, where Lutherans were most numerous. Muhlenberg himself attempted to steer a middle course and only declared his support of the colonists towards the end of the war. But others, including one of Muhlenberg’s sons, joined the rebellion and fought in the colonial army. There were Lutherans who remained loyal to the British crown, some of whom moved to the Canadian province of Ontario after the war. Many of the Hessian troops used by the British during the war were Lutherans, and some deserted and remained in America after the end of the fighting. By 1790 Lutheran congregations claimed close to 25,000 members, but there were probably many times that figure of nominal Lutherans, descendants of Lutheran immigrants from Europe.

Lutherans in the Early American Republic

American independence from Britain meant important changes for the new republic, especially the westward expansion of the country and its people across the Appalachian Mountains and into the Ohio River valley. The Louisiana Purchase in 1803 added a huge additional amount of land to the new nation. Since British policy attempted to keep the colonists east of the Appalachians, there was a pent-up colonial demand for new land to settle, and with independence a flood of Americans crossed the mountains. Many Lutherans joined in this westward exodus, causing immense problems for Lutheran leaders in America. Many Lutheran congregations, having just achieved some level of stability, were seriously weakened by the loss of the members who left for the West. More serious was the challenge of reaching Lutherans on the frontier, which stretched pastoral resources beyond the breaking pointing. Emergency measures had to be implemented, as barely training catechists were pressed into service on the frontier, while established pastors undertook long missionary trips into the new territories. New congregations were slowly formed in Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana, but many Lutherans were lost, either to the Methodists or Baptist preachers or to the frontier revivals.

The expansion of American Lutheranism also necessitated further institutional growth, especially the addition of new synods or ministeriums (generally regional groupings of Lutheran pastors and congregations). In the colonial period it seemed as though the Pennsylvania Ministerium might evolve into a national organization for all American Lutherans, gathering in most of the congregations, except those in the South. But geographical expansion blunted this development, as the increasing distances made it impractical for many pastors to travel to the annual ministerium meeting in Pennsylvania. The New York Ministerium was formed in 1786, followed by synods in North Carolina (1803), Ohio (1818), and Maryland (1820), the beginnings of a rapid expansion of Lutheran synods prior to the Civil War. Most of these new synods were organized geographically, but others were formed out of theological differences (such as the Tennessee Synod in 1820), or later because of ethnic and linguistic differences.

In the decades following the Revolutionary War, American Lutherans underwent another wrenching change, the linguistic transition from German to English. This transition was hard-fought but fairly brief, as younger generations of Lutherans sought to pray and worship in English, and these younger Lutherans increasingly took control of their congregations and synods. But it was a difficult change, as Lutheran worship and theology had never before been done in English, and there were doubts expressed by some as to whether this was even possible. The transition to English also moved American Lutherans closer toward the developing consensus of American Protestantism, founded on English-speaking Reformed Christianity. Lutherans began to emulate their Protestant neighbors and become involved in ecumenical activities; some of them even adopted the dominant Protestant revivalism that was so prevalent at this period of time.

The geographical and institutional growth of American Lutheranism, especially the multiplication of synods, suggested to many the necessity of some form of national Lutheran organization, especially to coordinate between the regional synods and to provide for more theological education for pastors. In 1820 such a national organization, the General Synod, was established, but because of infighting and rivalries not all synods joined it, and its early history was difficult. The General Synod was able, however, to form a successful theological seminary at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in 1826, under the leadership of Samuel S. Schmucker, one of the leading figures within the Synod. Because of his influence on generations of young pastors, Schmucker became a leading figure in American Lutheranism.

The transition to America and the use of the English language brought up a number of key confessional and theological questions, ones that had always been a part of Lutheranism, but which these transitions made all the more difficult. Lutheranism had been defined by theological and organizational obedience to the sixteenth-century Lutheran confessional documents, especially the Augsburg Confession (1530), which, in part, defined Lutheranism as separate from both Roman Catholicism and from other Protestants. Yet some Lutherans felt that these confessions were antiquated, and that too strict adherence to them severed Lutherans from their Protestant neighbors. Thus, there was a discernable movement away from formal adherence to the Lutheran confessions in the decades after independence. Schmucker tried to address these concerns with an “American” edition of the Augsburg Confession in 1855, which toned down Lutheran distinctives, but he misjudged the sentiments of the times, which were swinging back toward Lutheran confessionalism. The resulting battle, the “American Lutheran Controversy,” drove deep fault lines within the Eastern, English-speaking Lutherans (the “Muhlenberg” tradition). The ongoing question was how distinctive the Lutherans would be, and how closely the Lutheran confessional documents were taken as normative. More strict Lutheran confessionalists formed their own separate synods, beginning with the confessional Tennessee Synod in 1820, and the numbers of synods continued to multiply.

Adding to the growing diversity of American Lutheranism was the massive new immigration of Europeans to America which stretched from the 1840s to the First World War, during which time at least 30 million new immigrants came to the United States. Millions of new Lutheran immigrants, mainly Germans and Scandinavians, came into America, massively adding to the Lutheran population of the country. These new immigrants retained the European languages for worship and theology, and many were deeply skeptical of English-speaking, “American” Lutherans. Thus they formed their own independent synods and congregations, adding even further the multiplicity of Lutheran organizations in the United States. Since most of the immigrants were headed to the frontiers for free farmland, these new immigrant synods were based mainly in the American Midwest. The German immigration was earliest, and they formed several different synods, of increasingly strict confessional standings; the Ohio, Iowa, and Buffalo Synods, and the largest of them all, the strict confessional Missouri Synod (“synod” being used here to denote a national rather than a regional organization). Led by C. F. W. Walther, and fleeing Europe due to confessional “laxity” within the German churches, the Missouri Synod quickly grew to become one of the leading American Lutheran denominations. Swedish and Norwegian immigrants also formed one or more of their own separate denominations, split along lines of confession and practice, often issues brought with them from Europe.

The major national issue of the early nineteenth century in America was slavery; it dominated all other issues and divided religious groups, even the Lutherans. Southern Lutherans increasingly joined their neighbors in a defense of slavery. Northern Lutherans initially sought to avoid the issue so as not to provoke their Southern colleagues, but in the 1830s and 1840s some Northern Lutherans moved into the abolitionist camp. Frustrated with the slow response of their own synods, some abolitionist Lutherans broke away from established Northern Lutheran synods to form their own new groups (such as the Franckean Synod), actions which further inflamed North–South tensions. Immigrant Lutheran denominations, especially the Scandinavian ones, were anti-slavery from the beginning, though the German Missouri Synod, located in a border state, took a mediating position on the issue. When the Civil War erupted in 1861, the Southern Lutheran synods withdrew from the General Synod and form their own General Synod, South. The war was especially damaging to Lutherans in the South, and many of their congregations and institutions (colleges and seminary) were directly affected by the fighting. After the war, African Americans, who were a subordinate part of a number of Southern Lutheran congregations through their owners, were generally neglected or shunted off into separate, segregated Lutheran congregations, many of which floundered for lack of pastors or money.

American Lutheranism, 1865–1940

After the Civil War, sectional divisions remained sharp, and the Southern Lutherans maintained their separation from Northern Lutherans. The General Synod South was continued after the war and, supplemented by additional Southern Lutheran synods, formed the United Synod South in 1886. The separated African American Lutheran congregations struggled to survive, forming the short-lived Alpha Synod in the Carolinas in 1889. The Missouri Synod began mission work among African Americans in the South, and these congregations, along with those of the Alpha Synod, eventually became a part of the Missouri Synod itself. The Ohio Synod also undertook sporadic work among freed African-Americans in the South.

Among the Northern Lutherans, confessional issues from the 1850s continued and broke out in full division with the formation of the General Conference in 1867 as a rival to the General Synod. A number of the older Eastern Lutheran synods were split, and dozens of new, competing synods were formed. The General Council hoped to be the national organization for more strictly confessional Lutherans in America, but several years of conversations and negotiations failed to bridge the gap between the General Council and the new confessional immigrant denominations, such as the Missouri Synod, which remained unconvinced of the confessional soundness of the new group. The colonial Muhlenberg Lutherans then were divided into three different groups, the General Synod, the General Council, and the United Synod South, while the new immigrant denominations remained independent of any of the three.

The new German-speaking immigrant denominations grew rapidly after the Civil War, and expanded their congregations across the country, but especially in the Midwest and Upper Midwest. Chief among these new denominations was the Missouri Synod, which quickly grew into a national Lutheran denomination. But Missouri was not the only new German-language denomination, as rival groups, such as the Ohio, Iowa, Wisconsin, Buffalo, and Texas synods all sought to gather in the new German Lutheran immigrants. In 1872 the Missouri Synod and five other Lutheran synods formed a new national organization, the Synodical Conference, designed to be an umbrella organization for all the new confessional Lutheran denominations, but theological differences and personal rivalries generally thwarted this plan. During the 1870s and 1880s a major theological battle over the doctrine of Predestination (or Election) broke out among the leaders of these groups, further driving these German immigrant denominations apart. Missouri remained the largest of these new denominations, but it was not without its challengers.

After the Civil War the pace of immigrants from Scandinavia to America increased dramatically, as millions left Northern Europe for the New World. Since the Scandinavian kingdoms were officially and monolithically Lutheran, this portended a large increase in Lutherans in America. But as with the other immigrant Lutheran groups before them, the reality was quite different; the immigrants scattered widely, there were never enough ethnic pastors and congregations to reach them, and some Scandinavian immigrants decided to join “American” denominations or exercised their new-found freedom by joining no churches whatsoever. The Scandinavian Lutherans formed separate ethnic denominations, which were the largest ethnic organizations within the immigrant communities, but they did not enroll even the majority of Scandinavian immigrants into their congregations. The Scandinavian-American Lutheran denominations were also not intended as replicas of the formal state church Lutheranism of the countries from which they came. Many of the leaders of these Scandinavian denominations were deeply influenced by the Pietist awakenings that were sweeping nineteenth-century Scandinavia, and were deeply critical of the established Scandinavian churches. These Scandinavian-American Lutheran leaders formed denominations that were greatly influenced by Pietism in theology and structure.

The main Lutheran denomination among Swedish-Americans was the Augustana Synod, founded as an independent body in 1860, which became the largest organization in that immigrant community. There were, however, more “free church,” Baptist, and Methodist elements within this immigrant community, which posed a challenge to Augustana. Early on, the Swedish Methodists and Baptists formed separate congregations and denominational structures. The division between Augustana and the “free” church elements took longer to develop, but were pushed by a dispute in the 1870s over the doctrine of the Atonement, inspired by Swedish Pietist leader Paul Peter Waldenström. Eventually the free element moved away from Lutheranism altogether, and formed two separate denominations, the Swedish Evangelical Free Church and the Swedish Mission Covenant Church. This dispute did, however, solidify the Augustana Synod as a consciously Lutheran denomination.

Norwegian immigrants to America also formed a number of different denominations, the difference being that most of them remained self-consciously Lutheran. There were two groups that defined the borders of Norwegian-American Lutheranism; one wing, the Norwegian Synod (1853) was formal and strictly confessional, and perhaps closest to the Church of Norway, the other wing were the low-church Pietists out of the Haugean awakening tradition. In the middle were several different Lutheran denominations of a more churchly Pietist variety. As with the German denominations, the Norwegians were deeply affected by the Predestination controversy of the 1880s, and quite a few individual congregations were divided over this issue. Many of the centrist groups came together in 1890 to form the United Norwegian Lutheran Church.

Other immigrants from Scandinavia formed their own denominations. The Danish-Americans formed two different churches, one based around the folk-church ideology of Danish theologian N. F. S. Grundtvig, and popularly known as the “Happy” Danes. The other group of a more Pietistic (and strictly moralistic) persuasion formed their own denomination, popularly known as the “Holy” Danes. Danish immigration was not massive, and these denominations had a late start, so they gathered in relatively few of the Danish-Americans. Immigration from Finland developed toward the end of the nineteenth century and was similarly divided along pre-existing religious lines from Finland. The largest group, the Suomi Synod was perhaps closest to the Church of Finland, while the “National” Finns, followers of Pietist leader Frederick Hedberg formed another denomination which eventually associated with the Missouri Synod. A third group were the Apostolic Finns (Laestadians) who followed another Pietist leader, Lars Levi Laestadius; these Lutherans splintered into a dozen or more very small factions. There was even an Icelandic Synod in the United States and Canada.

Immigrants who came later in the nineteenth century included Lutherans from minority populations in Eastern Europe and Russia. There were Slavic Lutherans, including Wends and Poles and German settlers in Romania and Hungary, most of whom associated with one of the existing German-American Lutheran denominations. Lutherans from Slovakia formed two different Slovak synods, one that joined with the Missouri Synod, while the other joined the General Council. There were Lutherans from the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania who formed ethnic congregations in areas of their strength. Finally there were ethnic Germans who had settled in Russia in the eighteenth century, many of who emigrated to the upper Midwest and who also associated with one or another of the German-American Lutheran denominations.

As the immigration swelled their congregations, Lutherans grew into being a major group within American Protestantism, at least in numerical terms. By 1900 the Lutherans had become the third largest Protestant “family” in America, with only the Methodists and Baptists ahead of them. The Lutherans were still divided into at least sixteen different major denominations (and many other smaller ones). A sizeable proportion of them still did not use English, which limited their national influence, but especially in the American Midwest they were a regional power. For the new immigrants the local ethnic Lutheran congregations were an important center of religious and ethnic significance and functioned as a support for them to make the transition to life in America.

As the number of Lutherans grew, and their congregations and denominations multiplied, American Lutherans also built an impressive number of institutions to serve their people. This was the age of institution building, and each American Lutheran denomination of significant size built their own schools, academies, colleges, and seminaries, along with social service institutions, such as hospitals, orphanages, and places to serve the aged and the mentally and physically disabled. Though some of these institutions did not survive, Lutherans today are known for many quality colleges and universities, along with an extensive system of social service agencies. Lutherans also were inspired to join the general Protestant impetus to open mission endeavors in the United States and around the world. Most of these denominations did not have the resources to support their own independent missions, but raised money and personnel to assist European Lutheran mission efforts. Early American Lutheran missions were established in Liberia and South Africa, in India, and in China.

As America moved into the early twentieth century, many American Lutherans were still lived in the ethnic, hyphenated-American communities, with one foot in their ethnic culture and the other in the general American culture. Though the descendants of the colonial Muhlenberg Lutheran traditions were fairly well assimilated, the newer nineteenth-century Lutheran immigrants were still using their immigrant languages for worship and theology. The continual stream of new Lutheran immigrants meant that the ethnic denominations were inclined to maintain the older languages instead of English, for ministry to older generations and newly arrived immigrants. Younger generations chafed at this, but bided their time. Early in the new century a wave of mergers reduced the numbers of Lutheran denominations. The three colonial Muhlenberg denominations came back together in 1918 to form the United Lutheran Church in America (ULCA). Most of the Norwegian groups came together in 1917 to form the Norwegian Lutheran Church in America. Many of the German-language Midwestern denominations came together in 1930 to form the American Lutheran Church (1930–1960). This was just the first of several waves of mergers that consolidated American Lutheranism in the twentieth century. The Synodical Conference continued as a separate entity outside these merger negotiations.

The First World War (1914–1918) was a pivotal time for American Lutherans, perhaps the biggest turning point in their history. Like many Americans they were initially isolationist, and generally mildly sympathetic to the German side. Many were strongly suspicious of British intentions, seeing them and the French as having forced the continent into war. But with the sudden entry of the United States into the war in April, 1917, the national mood shifted quickly, as the nation became ardently anti-German. Waves of xenophobia attacked anything German in particular, and foreign in general. German-speaking Lutherans bore the brunt of popular hostility, and laws were proposed and passed to forbid the use of languages other than English in education and even worship. American Lutherans struggled to prove their patriotism, enlisting in the American armed forces and buying large numbers of war bonds. Lutheran denominations overcame their traditional divisions and formed a joint organization, the National Lutheran Commission on Soldiers and Sailor’s Welfare, to provide Lutheran chaplains for military installations and camps. As the nation mobilized to fight “the Hun,” Lutherans joined the war efforts as far as they could.

The First World War thrust American Lutheranism into a prominent role in world Lutheranism. European Lutherans churches and mission societies were unable to support their missions in Africa and Asia, so American Lutherans had to take care of these “orphaned” missions. The devastation of the war, especially in Eastern Europe, made it necessary for American Lutherans to provide relief to the minority Lutheran churches in this region. Having been forced to work across denominational lines, in 1918 eight of the Lutheran denominations established the National Lutheran Council, a permanent organization to coordinate Lutheran work in America; American Lutherans also took the lead in organizing meeting of world Lutherans after the war.

The greatest impact of the war, however, was to encourage a rapid language transition among nineteenth-century immigrant Lutheran denominations; the popular xenophobia, the demands of the younger generations, and the virtual cessation of immigration in the 1920s meant that the transition to the use of English was rapid and widespread. In 1917 the immigrant languages were predominant, but by 1930 they were almost completely supplanted by English. This transition also pushed the Lutheran denominations closer together; if they were all speaking English, and cooperating in the National Lutheran Council, it seemed less necessary to maintain their separate existences.

Theological and confessional differences remained, however, and complicated movements toward closer cooperation and merger. The Lutheran landscape in the 1920s and 1930s consisted of two very large denominations on each side, with about eight smaller ones in the middle. On one side was the United Lutheran Church in America, the most open to merger and American religious traditions. On the other side were the strictly confessional groups, like the Missouri and Wisconsin synods, which demanded complete agreement on doctrine and practice before fellowship (let alone merger) was possible. These two denominations were extremely suspicious of each other. In the Lutheran middle was Augustana, the Norwegians, the new American Lutheran Church, and smaller groups of Danes and Finns; the question was whether these groups would tilt toward the ULCA or Missouri, and what kinds of merger were possible among them. Besides traditional confessional issues, there was suddenly a new issue, a dispute about the nature of Biblical authority (paralleling similar battles within American Protestantism).

American Lutheranism, 1940–2015

After the First World War American Lutheranism continued to grow, despite the cessation of European immigration; the number of baptized members grew from 3.7 million in 1920 to 4.7 million in 1935. Lutherans wrestled with the challenges of the new, modern world; they still held to a fairly strict personal morality, rejecting movies and dancing, though since radio could be used for evangelism, it was not completely rejected. The Depression of 1929–1941 hit Lutheran congregations and institutions hard, as funding plummeted; many of the weaker ones closed, while the others struggled to survive. Like many other Americans during the 1930s, Lutherans tended toward an isolationist position on world conflict, but with the entry of America into the Second World War in 1941, Lutherans joined the war efforts wholeheartedly.

Because of this war, American Lutherans were thrust even further into the leadership of the world Lutheran community. The Central European heartland of Lutheranism was devastated by the war, the advance of communism meant an even further increased number of refugees and displaced persons, and many Lutheran mission churches in the Global South were left without support. American Lutherans raised millions of dollars for relief of refugees, resettled displaced persons, and worked in Europe to rebuild the Lutheran churches there. Many American Lutheran denominations (but not those in the Synodical Conference, such as Missouri and Wisconsin) were instrumental in the formation of the Lutheran World Federation in 1947, the World Council of Churches in 1948, and the National Council of Churches in 1950.

The end of the war also brought about a demographic shift, the “baby boom” of 1946–1964, when a huge number of children were born. Pent-up demand meant the building of new houses and new suburban communities, and the shift of American population to areas of the South and West. These social shifts, and the demand for congregations in the new areas pushed Lutheran resources to their fullest, with the formation of thousands of new mission congregations, and the training of new pastors to staff them. Established Lutheran congregations bulged at the seams, and many had to expand their facilities. Colleges, seminaries, hospitals, and social service agencies expanded as well. The number of American Lutherans peaked in the middle of the 1960s at about 9 million members.

This expansion raised anew the question of closer Lutheran cooperation and the merger of denominations. This was the age of centralization, as many areas of American life became consolidated into even larger (and perhaps more efficient) units; it was the age of mergers that created ever larger Protestant denominations. Lutherans wondered if their national impact and mission could be more effective by merging the various Lutheran denominations into a larger church. But as earlier in the twentieth century, old confessional and theological issues caused problems. The two biggest denominations, the ULCA and the Missouri Synod, were not likely merger partners, so the eight smaller denominations in the center had to decide towards which of those two denominations they would steer. This question split the centrist denominations, and ended up in two separate merger processes. The ULCA, Augustana, the Finns and one of the Danish groups formed the Lutheran Church in America (LCA) in 1962. The Norwegians, the other Danish group, and the American Lutheran Church (1930–1960) formed the American Lutheran Church (ALC 1960–1988) in 1960. Full Lutheran unity did not occur, but the number of major Lutheran denominations was reduced to three; the LCA, the ALC, and the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS).

With the growth of Lutheran congregations and institutions, many leaders felt the need for greater cooperation and coordination between the three denominations for more efficient ministries. A major step in this direction was the formation of the Lutheran Council in the USA in 1966, which was important because of the inclusion of the LCMS in such a cooperative body. Another major milestone was the establishment of pulpit and altar fellowship between the ALC and the LCMS. Besides managing their growth, the Lutheran denominations also had to confront the social and political changes that were straining society during the 1960s, including the Civil Rights movement, the conflict over the war in Vietnam, and the women’s liberation movement, among others. Traditionally Lutherans had avoided direct public comments on such issues, but now some Lutherans sought to define new roles and new positions. Each denomination began concerted efforts to address minority concerns and bring in African American members. After a joint study, the ALC and LCA began to ordain women as pastors in 1970, though the LCMS decided not to do so.

The closer relations between the LCMS and the other two denominations during the 1960s caused a backlash and heightened conflict between “moderates” and “conservatives” within the LCMS, which broke out into open conflict in 1969. These relations also caused the end of the Synodical Conference, when the Wisconsin Synod and others pulled out of it. A new conservative president in the LCMS, J. A. O. Preus, began to target moderates in leadership positions, especially at the synod’s flagship seminary, Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri. Attempts to rein in the seminary faculty led to a walkout by most of the seminarians and 45 out of 50 faculty, who formed Christ Seminary in Exile, or Seminex. This dispute rolled through the LCMS, and some moderate pastors and congregations withdrew from the synod to form the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Congregations (AELC) in 1976. Many moderates remained in the LCMS, however, and this new denomination was quite top heavy with pastors and theologians, and not enough congregations.

The growth of American Lutheranism, which had peaked in the 1960s, stalled out in the 1970s and 1980s, as Lutheran congregations matured and as they wrestled with the changes in society. The movement of women into the paid workforce brought many shifts to the local congregations, including the need now to pay for much of the work formerly done by volunteers (mainly women). As the LCMS became dominated by the conservatives, and pulled away from relations with the ALC and LCA, the hope of a merger of all American Lutherans dimmed. Because of this, and because the AELC was struggling, these three groups began merger negotiations in 1982, which resulted in the formation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) in 1988. This new denomination, at 5.2 million members, contained about two-thirds of all Lutherans in America; the LCMS contained most of the rest, at 2.5 million members. With 400,000 members the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod was the largest of a number of other, much smaller groups.

Toward the end of the twentieth century American Lutheran denominations struggled to become more ethnically diverse, reaching out to African Americans, Hispanics, and new immigrant groups, with generally mixed success. Lutheran congregations sponsored refugees from Southeast Asia, some of whom formed ethnic congregations. Immigrants from Lutheran churches in Africa, especially East Africa, Liberia, and Nigeria, formed new congregations in America. Lutheran social service agencies grew and expanded, helping the new immigrants, and forming one of the largest networks of such organizations in the country.

Formed in 1988, the new ELCA faced immediate and thorny issues, many of which had been deferred from the merger process. The initial budget projections were far too optimistic, and the denomination has struggled with financial issues from the beginning. Contentious issues surrounding church structure, the ministry, and ecumenical relations brought conflict. The decision in 1999 to pursue full fellowship with the Episcopal Church (and the changes this necessitated), brought opposition and eventual schism, as congregations and pastors withdrew to form the Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ in 2001. Further conflict over human sexuality, especially the decision to ordain of homosexual pastors in 2009, led to the withdrawal of another group, which formed the North American Lutheran Church in 2010. These two schisms further weakened the ELCA, which lost 500,000 members and 1,000 congregations to the new centrist denominations. The demographic trends, the “graying” of mainline American Protestant denominations, have also affected the ELCA, which numbered 3.8 million members in 2015. These trends have also somewhat affected the LCMS, which numbered 2.3 million members in 2015.

Lutherans remain a strong denominational family, and are especially dominant in areas of the Midwest and Upper Midwest, with pockets of strength in Pennsylvania, the Carolinas, and Texas. In 2015 the number of Lutherans in America is about seven million members in about 17,000 congregations. They continue to maintain a number of quality educational institutions and a notable network of social service agencies. They are a leading part of the Lutheran communion worldwide, with connections to the historical Lutheran churches in Europe and the fast-growing Lutheran churches in the Global South.

Discussion of the Literature

The scholarship on Lutherans in America has often been done “in house,” with Lutherans writing about themselves for other Lutherans. There is a rich literature on the history of Lutherans in America, but it may not be as widely available as it should be. Definitely this history is less prevalent in the larger scholarly discussions of religion in America than it should be.1 Most of the older, nineteenth-century histories of American Lutheranism have focused on denominational and institutional development, written from within, and sometimes rather self-referrential—still there is much good information in many of these volumes. A major shift in this pattern came in the 1920s with the historian Abdel Ross Wentz, who wrote a general history of Lutherans in America that was designed specifically to place this history within the larger story of religion in America.2 With the Lutheran mergers of 1960 and 1962, there was a spate of denominational histories written to preserve the memory of the smaller denominations that had merged out of existence; many of these histories are quite good, but still focused on institutional matters. The high point of this era was a new general history of Lutherans in America, published in 1975 by a team of six scholars under the direction of E. Clifford Nelson.3 This work is still a standard history of Lutherans in America. Since that time there has been a shift by American Lutheran historians to focus on other elements in addition to theological and institutional developments, including fine interpretative history by DeAne Lagerquist in 1999,4 and a new comprehensive history in 2015 by Mark Granquist.5 Newer monographs and histories have been written over the past forty years that have also embodied a further interest in social history and a focus on women, lay people, and minority groups, along with the theological and institutional developments.

Primary Sources

There are two primary archives for the history of Lutherans in America, associated with the two primary denominations; the Archive of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Elk Grove Village, Illinois, and the Concordia Historical Institute, St Louis, Missouri (archives of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod). There are also regional archives for the ELCA: New York; Philadelphia; Gettysburg, Pennsylvania; Columbia, South Carolina; Dubuque, Iowa; Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Berkeley, California. Much important information can be found in the archives of the various ethnic traditions that Lutherans brought to America; the Swenson Immigrant Research Center, Rock Island, Illinois (Swedish); the Norwegian-American Historical Association, Northfield, Minnesota; the Museum of Danish America, Elk Horn, Iowa; and the Finnish American Historical Center, Hancock, Michigan. The Lutheran Historical Conference and the Concordia Historical Institute produce regular publications about the history of Lutherans in America.

Further Reading

Historical Guides, Reference Works, and Bibliographies

DeBerg, Betty. 1992. Women and Women’s Issues in North Americans Lutheranism. Chicago: Commission for Women of the ELCA.Find this resource:

    Wiederaenders, Robert C. A Bibliography of American Lutheranism: 1624–1850. N.p.: 1956.Find this resource:

      Wiederaenders, Robert C., ed. Historical Guide to Lutheran Church Bodies of North America. Second Edition. Lutheran Historical Conference Publication 1, St. Louis, MO: Lutheran Historical Conference, 1998. A first edition of this work by the same editor is entitled The Synods of American Lutheranism.Find this resource:

        Wilds McArver, Susan. “Lutherans.” In Blackwell Companion to American Religion, edited by Philip Goff, 614–635. Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2010.Find this resource:

          Encyclopedias and Reference Works

          Bodensieck, Julius, ed., The Encyclopedia of the Lutheran Church. 3 vols. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1965.Find this resource:

            Gassmann, Günther. Historical Dictionary of Lutheranism. 2nd edition. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2011.Find this resource:

              Lueker, Erwin L. Lutheran Cyclopedia. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1975.Find this resource:

                Wengert, Timothy, ed. The Dictionary of Luther and the Lutheran Traditions. Grand Rapids, MO: Baker Book House, 2016.Find this resource:

                  Sourcebooks and Readers

                  Meyer, Carl S., ed. Moving Frontiers: Readings in the History of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1964.Find this resource:

                    Suelflow, August, ed. Heritage in Motion. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1988.Find this resource:

                      Tappert, Theodore G., ed. Lutheran Confessional Theology in America, 1840–1880. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972.Find this resource:

                        Wolf, Richard C., ed. Documents of Lutheran Unity in America. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1966.Find this resource:

                          General Histories

                          Nelson, E. Clifford, ed. The Lutherans in North America. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1975.Find this resource:

                            Lagerquist, L. DeAne. The Lutherans. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999.Find this resource:

                              Granquist, Mark. Lutherans in America: A New History. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015.Find this resource:

                                Specialized Histories

                                Bengtson, Gloria, ed. Lutheran Women in Ordained Ministry, 1970–1995. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1995.Find this resource:

                                  Cimino, Richard, ed. Lutherans Today: American Lutheran Identity in the 21st Century. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003.Find this resource:

                                    Nelson, E. Clifford. Lutheranism in North America, 1914–1970. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1972.Find this resource:

                                      Lagerquist, L. DeAne. From Our Mother’s Arms: A History of Women in the American Lutheran Church. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1987.Find this resource:

                                        Johnson, Jeff G. Black Christians: The Untold Lutheran Story. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1991.Find this resource:

                                          Solberg, Richard W. Lutheran Higher Education in North America. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1985.Find this resource:

                                            Tietjen, John H. Which Way to Lutheran Unity? St. Louis, MO: Clayton Publishing House, 1966.Find this resource:

                                              Histories of Individual Lutheran Groups

                                              Anderson, Hugh G. Lutheranism in the Southeastern States, 1860–1886. The Hague: Mouton, 1969.Find this resource:

                                                Baepler, Walter A. A Century of Grace: The Missouri Synod, 1847–1947. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1947.Find this resource:

                                                  Braun, Mark E. A Tale of Two Synods: Events That Led to the Split Between Missouri and Wisconsin. Milwaukee, WI: Northwestern, 2003.Find this resource:

                                                    Burkee, James C. Power, Politics, and the Missouri Synod: A Conflict that Changed American Christianity. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2011.Find this resource:

                                                      Nelson, E. Clifford, and Eugene L. Fevold, The Lutheran Church Among Norwegian-Americans. 2 vols. Minneapolis, MN: Augburg Publishing House, 1960.Find this resource:

                                                        Erling, Maria, and Mark Granquist. The Augustana Story: Shaping Lutheran Identity in North America. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2008.Find this resource:

                                                          Fredrich, Edward C. The Wisconsin Synod Lutherans: A History of the Single Synod, Federation, and Merger. Milwaukee, WI: Northwestern, 1992.Find this resource:

                                                            Hansen, Thorvald. Church Divided: Lutheranism Among the Danish Immigrants. Des Moines, IA: Grand View College, 1992.Find this resource:

                                                              Jalkanen, Ralph J., ed. The Faith of the Finn: Historical Perspectives on the Finnish Lutheran Church in America. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1972.Find this resource:

                                                                Gilbert, W. Kent. Commitment to Unity: A History of the Lutheran Church in America. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1988.Find this resource:

                                                                  Meuser, Fred W. The Formation of the American Lutheran Church. Columbus, OH: Wartburg Press, 1958.Find this resource:

                                                                    Rogness, Alvin N. The Story of the American Lutheran Church. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1980.Find this resource:

                                                                      Bachmann, E. Theodore. The United Lutheran Church in America, 1918–1962. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1997.Find this resource:

                                                                        Todd, Mary. Authority Vested: A Story of Identity and Change in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2000.Find this resource:


                                                                          (1.) For a discussion of American Lutheran historiography and resources, see Susan Wilds McArver, “Lutherans,” in Blackwell Companion to American Religion, edited by Philip Goff, 614–635. Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2010.

                                                                          (2.) Abdel Ross Wentz, The Lutheran Church in American History. Philadelphia, PA: United Lutheran Publication House, 1923. This work was updated, and then reissued in a much expanded form in A Basic History of Lutheranism in America. Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1955.

                                                                          (3.) E. Clifford Nelson, ed., The Lutherans in North America. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1975.

                                                                          (4.) L. DeAne Lagerquist, The Lutherans. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999.

                                                                          (5.) Mark Granquist, Lutherans in America: A New History. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015.