Right here, in my hand, I’m holding something pretty important to me. This is my copy of Luther’s Small Catechism. From 7th through 8th grade I attended a once a week class at my church with a bunch of other 7th and 8th graders where we went through this book and the Bible, and learned what it meant to be a Christian according to Martin Luther, and when the course was completed we became full members of the Lutheran Church.
Growing up I noticed that there weren’t very many Lutherans where I lived. If I met another Lutheran there was a 99% chance that they went to the same church I did. As someone who has retained their faith and considers themselves a practicing believer, the small number of adherents to my church’s biblical interpretation has some downsides and upsides. The downsides being that I am concerned about the fate of a larger number of souls, and that our positions on theological issues are not as understood as those of larger denominations. On the other hand, the great thing about being in such a small denomination is that Politicians don’t bother pandering to you because you’re not a valuable voter demographic like Catholics or Baptists.
Anyways, I was curious as to why the Lutheran’s have had so little influence on the culturally protestant United States, despite the fact that Martin Luther was the first Protestant Reformer. In my research I came to an important conclusion. Lutheranism, in its interpretation of the Bible, and by extension its interaction with the world, is very conservative, and this goes back to the very beginning.
I want to make a video on the Reformation at some point in the future, so I’ll keep this part short, and hopefully future me will remember to put that future video in the cards up in the right hand corner.
The Reformation was started by German Monk Martin Luther. He was concerned over what he saw as many unbiblical teachings and practices of the Church, in particular the selling of Indulgences, which are basically coupons for lessening the amount of timep spent in purgatory after you die. On one hand, Luther didn’t see the power to sell indulgences given to the church in the Bible, and on the other Luther was becoming less and less certain of the existence of Purgatory, especially after he rejected the Deuterocanon.
Although Luther believed that the Church shouldn’t be charging people for the forgiveness of sins, his biggest qualm with the practice was the lack of support for it in the Bible. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that forgiveness can be sold, and this is the root of Lutheranism. If a church doctrine or practice can’t be backed up by scripture, then it is not to be done or followed. This idea is part of the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, Scripture alone, and it is the most important thing to understand when looking at Lutheran History, especially in the United States.
Luther’s teachings were taken in different directions than Luther had intended by German Peasants, who began revolting across the Holy Roman Empire. In this conflict Luther sided with the Nobles, and urged them to put down the rebels. Some interpret this as Luther changing his mind on a subject because he was being protected by members of the Nobility, but I think Luther’s theology is a better explanation. Luther condemns only what he believes the Bible condemns. The Bible says a lot about helping the poor, but it doesn’t condemn economic or political inequality. Because of this, he doesn’t condone the Peasant Revolts. (footage of burning churches in Luther movie) When it comes to social issues, Luther and his theology are very much about preserving the status-quo unless it is a violation of scripture.
Luther’s theology would become the dominant form of Christianity in Northern Germany, as well as Scandinavia, while the theological teachings of one of his rivals, John Calvin, who was more radical than Luther, would be embraced by the Church of England, which is why Calvinism is the most prominent school of theology in the United States, being the basis for Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Baptists.
Lutherans would be introduced to the New World by the colony of New Sweden, encompassing parts of modern day New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. It would be conquered by the Dutch in 1655, and then by the English in 1674. In the 1690s William Penn would recruit Germans from the Lower Rhineland to settle in Pennsylvania, among them were some Lutherans. Another wave of German immigration would occur after the ascension of the Hanoverian Dynasty with King George I. These Lutheran migrants tended to come as individual indentured servants and settled along the frontier after their period of servitude. These early Lutherans were not nearly as organized as English and Scottish migrants, who tended to arrive as families, and were socially isolated from the rest of English Colonial Society due to language barriers.
When the American Revolution started the German colonists were split. Those that embraced Calvinist Theology tended to side with the Revolutionaries, while the Lutherans tended to side with the Loyalists. Considering Luther’s feelings about the Peasant Revolts during the Reformation, it shouldn’t be a surprise that they sided with the British. According to Lutherans, there was nothing in the Bible that said that taxation without representation was wrong, and therefore the most biblical position was to support the status-quo of British rule. And after the revolution Lutherans tended to be supporters of Alexander Hamilton’s Federalists.
The growth of Lutheran Churches in America was largely tied to German Immigration, and German immigration was tied to the willingness of German states in Europe to allow emigration. The revolution saw an initial drop in German immigration to the United States, but by the end of the Napoleonic Wars, which had ravaged central Europe, a new wave of German immigration arrived, especially from the heavily Lutheran areas of Northern Germany, and mostly settled in the old Northwest and along the frontier, where they arrived as whole families, and sometimes whole villages.
One particularly important story of en masse immigration was the migration of the Saxon Lutherans in 1838. The Kingdom of Saxony was considering following the path of Prussia, who had forced a merger between the Lutheran and Reformed Churches of Prussia. Lutherans of Saxony did not like the prospect of being forced to practice a merged form of their religion that they saw as heretical. So in order to continue practicing their religion as they saw fit, between 600 and 700 immigrated from the Kingdom of Saxony to the U.S. State of Missouri, where they established what is today the second largest Lutheran Denomination in the United States, the Lutheran Church- Missouri Synod. I’ld go into more detail here, but I want to make that its own video later.
As slavery heated up and the civil war neared, Lutherans were divided between the Democratic and Republican Parties, and which side they chose was usually determined by their religious affiliation, where in Germany they came from, and when they arrived.
The Old Pomeranian Lutherans who arrived in the 1830s and 40s sided with the Democratic Party. These Lutherans came from parts of Germany that had left the Catholic Church, but retained a lot of its rituals. They sided with the Democrats in part because the Democratic Party was more friendly toward Catholicism at the time, but even more so because the anti-clerical 48ers who had fled Germany after the failed revolutions of 1848 joined the Republican Party. On the other hand, German-Lutherans that had immigrated from Southern Germany tended to side with the Republican Party. This was due to Southern Germany being majority Catholic, which created more tension for southern protestants, resulting in South-German Lutherans being more anti-Catholic, which made them more inclined to side with the Republican Party.
What must be said about Lutheran alignments in the American Civil War is that it was not determined by their views on slavery. Individual Lutherans may have had their own personal feelings about it, but as Churches they did not take a position on the issue. The reasoning for this is, once again, the Bible. The Bible talks about slavery in both negative and positive ways. The book of Exodus is clearly anti-slavery, with its narrative focusing on the escape of the Israelites from Egyptian Slavery. However the Bible also condones slavery in multiple parts. One question around slavery that many believers in the Untied States pondered was whether it was ok to own a Christian as a slave. Some denominations came out firmly against this practice, but the Lutherans were not one of them.
In the New Testament Book of Philemon there is a story about a slave named Onesimus who converted to Christianity, whom the Apostle Paul sent back to his master, Philemon. In the book he encouraged Philemon to welcome Onesimus, “as a dear brother.” (Philemon 8-21) Some read this book as though Onesimus was set free in it, but that is not explicitly stated. Because of this confusion, the only stance Lutherans took on slavery was that if slavery existed, than the slaves should be treated well. Sola Scriptura strikes again. However, it should be noted that how Churches react to conflict, and how individual members of those churches react to conflict are quite different.
Lutheran Churches in the north remained quite apolitical, in contrast to other protestant denominations, but when speaking as individuals, they were more fervent in their beliefs. Lutherans in Northern States tended to support President Lincoln and the abolishment of slavery, while Lutherans in the South usually sided with their home state. So when looking at the Lutherans in the Civil War we need to separate the Churches as institutions, and the individual members of said churches. The Lutheran Church- Missouri Synod, founded and located in a border state, had an official position that slavery as an institution was not sinful, but condemned all the other evils that sprang from it. This position of the church was held partly because of gold ol Sola Scriptura, but also because the President of the Missouri Synod, C.F.W. Walther was probably a Confederate Sympathizer.
When it came to fighting in the Civil War, there was never a question of if. Despite the Missouri Synod officially stating that slavery was not a sin, students at the Lutheran Seminary of Concordia in St. Louis formed their own voluntary militia in support of the North. Ultimately, the Lutheran Church- Missouri Synod took the same position as the State of Missouri, and tried to remain neutral.
However, I’ve mostly been talking about German Lutherans, but they weren’t the only ones. As I mentioned earlier with New Sweden, Lutheranism was also dominant amongst Scandinavian immigrants, who like the later Germans also arrived as whole families or villages, and also tended to settle the frontier regions, and they were lopsidedly anti-slavery and Republican. They formed numerous volunteer regiments that fought in the war. One regiment in particular, the 15th Wisconsin Volunteer Regiment, popularly known as the “Norwegian” or “Scandinavian” regiment, fought in numerous battles such as Chickamauga, and the Battle of Atlanta, serving under William Tecumseh Sherman.
As the Civil War came to an end, so did the divides over slavery within the Lutheran Church, but with it came a new challenge. The first Lutheran Churches in America were made to meet the spiritual needs of German speaking immigrants, but as decades wore on, succeeding generations spoke English more than German. There was also the issue of inconsistent levels of immigration from Germany in the later half of the 19th century. During the 1860s and early 1870s the Kingdom of Prussia fought a number of wars and made a number of diplomatic negotiations to unite the German states under the rule of a single monarch, Kaiser Wilhelm I.
Under the newly unified Germany restrictions on immigration were two-fold; One, a new unified Germany was more peaceful than a disunited Germany, therefore the average German was less likely to be impacted by war, and two; a newly unified Germany needed all the manpower it could get so it restricted its citizens from leaving the country. This resulted in one of the sources for Lutheran expansion in the United States to dry up. Because of this, and their attempts at unifying with other smaller Lutheran Synods, the Missouri Synod decided to start transitioning its operations into the English language. This trend was put into overdrive during the first and second world wars, where anti-German sentiment made speaking German a social taboo.
After the world wars the Missouri Synod grew as it absorbed other smaller Synods that had been serving other foreign language Lutheran congregations. In 1925 the church had over 600,000 members, and by 1950 it had over 1.6 million. It reached its height of membership in 1970 with 2.8 million congregants. Despite this growth, however, Lutherans were facing a growing challenge in the 20th century; Ecumenism.
Ecumenism is the process of different church groups trying to come to a theological middle ground, in most cases trying to put the focus on just Christ rather than other doctrines. Modern Ecumenism has been the response by Christian denominations against the growing secularization of culture. That’s why you are more likely to hear someone today refer to themselves as being “just a Christian” than you are to hear them refer to a particular denomination. Lutheran Churches in Europe and elsewhere have been very active in Ecumenism, but Lutherans in the United States have been more reluctant. The Missouri Synod had engaged in some Ecumenism with other more liberal Lutheran Denominations in the 1950s, but this was a fragile union.
The Counter Culture of the 1960s would spark schisms of many protestant denominations, and the Missouri Synod was no exception. This period saw what has been referred to as the “Lutheran Civil War,” which came to head in 1969 with the election of a new Synod President, Jacob Preus II, who came into conflict with the President of Concordia Seminary, John Tietjen. The conflict was over the authority of Bible in church teachings. Preus was a traditionally conservative Lutheran, while Tietjen was more liberal, who wanted the church to utilize higher criticism and the Historical-Critical Method to analyze the Bible. This difference resulted in Preus suspending Tietjen in 1974, resulting in a walkout by most the Concordia’s staff and students, who formed their own Seminary in Exile that eventually merged with the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Concordia rebuilt itself by the late 1970s but the consequences of it were far greater.
By 1976 about 250 congregations had separated from the Missouri Synod. Many of these congregations would merge together in 1988 to The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. Today the ELCA boasts approximately 3.5 million members, compared to the Missouri Synod’s 2 million. There were many social issues that surrounded the split, such as Birth Control, No Fault Divorces, and Abortion, which split Lutheran’s along conservative and Liberal Lines, and they continue to be split along Ecumenism and LGBTQ issues to this day.
On the other hand, Lutherans, neither liberals nor conservatives, ever had such prestige.
The more conservative branch doesn’t see the social issues as having caused the split. For them it goes back to Sola Scriptura, Scripture Alone. As they see it, the reason Liberals took the positions they did on those social issues was because they abandoned scripture as being theologically authoritative. The Liberals would disagree, and say that they are just evolving with the times.
As you can see, the through line of Lutheran History in the United States is Sola Scriptura. Lutheran groups have sacrificed greater numbers, and therefore greater power, in exchange for what they see as proper adherence to the Bible. What the future holds for both branches of Lutheranism is uncertain, So we’ll have to wait and see where the chips fall. Will the increasing secularization of the United States doom the more conservative branch to extinction, or will there be a backlash against the current trend of social liberalization at some point. Only time will tell.
Edwin S. Gaustad, A Documentary History of Religion in America Since 1865
Robert V. Hine, John Mack Faragher, The American West: A New Interpretive History
- Clifford Nelson, Lutheranism in North America: 1914-1970
Kevin Phillips, The Cousins’ Wars: Religion, Politics, & The Triumph of Anglo-America
Robert Middlekauf, The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789
John Richard Alden, The South in the Revolution: 1763-1789
David Hackett Fischer, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America
Walter O. Forster, Zion on the Mississippi: The Settlement of the Saxon Lutherans in Missouri 1839-1841
Daniel P. Marggraf, “The Lutheran Responds to Conflict: The Civil War and its Issues in Nineteenth Century America”, Wisconsin Lutheran University http://essays.wls.wels.net/bitstream/handle/123456789/33/Marggraf.pdf?sequence=1