Martin Luther was nine years old when Christopher Columbus made his famous voyage of discovery in 1492. The Reformation – in both its Lutheran and Calvinist manifestations – was therefore still a fresh and lively influence in the hearts and minds of many of those who began to migrate to North America in the early seventeenth century. In one sense, the North American colonies became “incubators” for Reformation ideas. Those ideas could bloom and grow in the colonies and there assume their own natural ecclesiastical shape, unhampered by the medieval political and institutional restraints that still lingered in Europe.
Lutherans first began to settle in America in the 1630s in the New Netherland colony. One prominent Lutheran settler was the Dane Jacob Bronck, whose sprawling farm northeast of Manhattan Island is now the Borough of the Bronx. Ethnically and nationally, the Lutherans who settled in the Dutch colony were a very diverse group. Among them were people of Dutch, Frisian, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, German, Prussian, and Silesian backgrounds.
In the Netherlands in Europe, the Reformed Church was the official religion of the state, but churches of other confessions – including Lutheran – were allowed to function. The Lutherans who went to the New Netherland colony in America probably expected the same kind of tolerance there, but Governor Peter Stuyvesant strictly forbade any public worship except that of the Reformed Church. The Lutherans were therefore forced to meet in homes in lay-led services until the English took over the colony in 1664, when they were finally allowed to organize and call pastors from Europe. The first Lutheran pastor to be ordained in America – Justus Falckner in 1703 – was ordained for service among the Lutherans of this Dutch heritage in what had then become the New York colony.
The Kingdom of Sweden planted an American colony in the region comprising the area where Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey now meet. New Sweden existed from 1638 to 1655, at which time it was conquered by the Dutch and became a part of New Netherland. Then, in 1664 when the English took over, it was absorbed into the English colonies. Lutheranism was the official religion of the New Sweden colony. Ministers from the Church of Sweden were sent to serve the congregations of that colony, not only during the time when Sweden controlled it, but all the way into the nineteenth century. Pastor Johannes Campanius, who served there from 1643 to 1648, translated Luther’s Small Catechism into the Algonquian language spoken by the Lenape Indians in the region, among whom he was doing mission work. This was the first book of any kind translated into a Native American language.
In the first half of the eighteenth century, tens of thousands of German-speaking people from what is now southwestern Germany migrated to the English colonies – chiefly to New York and Pennsylvania – as refugees from the frequent wars of the time and to make a better future for themselves and their children. Many of these “Palatine” and “Pennsylvania Dutch” settlers were Lutheran. They had not left Europe to avoid religious persecution, but their faith was important to them, so they organized congregations and built churches in the communities where they settled. The most notable of the pastors who served among them was Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, who was instrumental in organizing the first permanent Lutheran Synod in America in 1748 (the Pennsylvania Ministerium) and in putting together the first liturgy specifically prepared for use in the American Lutheran setting.
Over time, the “East Coast” Lutherans came under the influence of American Puritanism and Revivalism, so their Lutheran consciousness began to be significantly weakened by the first half of the nineteenth century. Their transition to the English language, accompanied by the reading of non-Lutheran English religious books and the singing of non-Lutheran English hymns, contributed toward this decline. One exception was the Tennessee Synod, which was organized in 1820 on the basis of a strict commitment to the doctrines of the Augsburg Confession. This synod was very active in publishing sound Lutheran materials in the English language.
A higher appreciation for the distinctive theology of Confessional Lutheranism began to reemerge among many of the East Coast Lutherans in the middle of the nineteenth century, especially with the publication of the first English translation of the Book of Concord in 1851 – issued under the auspices of the Tennessee Synod. Others, however, resisted such Confessional reforms. This led eventually to a split between those Eastern regional synods of the “General Synod” led by Samuel Simon Schmucker that wanted to stay with a more Americanized and ecumenical theology and those Eastern regional synods of the “General Council” led by Charles Porterfield Krauth that wanted to return to a more orthodox Lutheran position.
Meanwhile, also in the nineteenth century, a new wave of Lutheran immigrants began to arrive in America. Most of the Lutherans who came during this period – from Germany and Scandinavia – settled in the Midwest. Some of these Lutherans were Pietists who were interested in a type of spirituality that emphasized inner experience over sound doctrine. Others, however, had been influenced in Europe by the “Confessional Awakening” and were seeking an opportunity to live out, in their church life in America, a consistently orthodox form of Lutheranism. Many of the Lutheran immigrants came to America for economic opportunity, but some came to escape from the oppression of Rationalism within the state church hierarchies or to escape from the forced union of Lutherans and Reformed that had been demanded by the King of Prussia.
The more conservative element among the Lutheran immigrants of this century was sympathetic to the work of Krauth in the East, but they organized their own independent synods in the Midwestern states where they settled. At this time in history, the most prominent orthodox synod among the Germans was the Missouri Synod, led by C. F. W. Walther, with roots primarily in Saxony and Bavaria. The most prominent orthodox synod among the Scandinavians was the Norwegian Synod, led by U. V. Koren, H. A. Preus, and J. A. Ottesen. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, a smaller number of Lutherans from Eastern Europe – especially Slovak Lutherans – also began arriving in the United States.
Some sad controversies took place between the orthodox synods and the more Pietistic and theologically lax synods on issues such as Church and Ministry, the Doctrine of the Call and Lay Preaching, Absolution and Justification, Conversion and Election, and Church Fellowship. But also during this time, there was much fruitful cooperation among the Confessional Lutherans, who worked with each other across cultural and linguistic boundaries while testifying to the common faith that they shared. This was especially so within the Synodical Conference, organized in 1877 by several conservative Lutheran bodies, at the time including the Missouri, the Norwegian, and the Wisconsin Synods. (At a later time, the Slovak Synod also belonged to this conference.) Important efforts were made by American Lutherans in this century in the areas of home and world missions, parish education and higher education, and works of compassion in human care agencies and institutions. By the dawn of the twentieth century, Lutheranism had become a well-established ecclesiastical presence in the larger American society.
Reverend David Jay Webber
Redeemer Lutheran Church
* Member, ELS Doctrine Commttee