The Evangelical Lutheran Synod Historical Society promotes interest in the historical and doctrinal heritage of Lutheranism, particularly of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod and its institutions; stimulates historical research; publishes historical studies; assists congregations in the preservation of local congregational history; preserves items of museum quality; and, provides assistance to the ELS Department of Archives and History.
The ELS Historical Society’s website includes back issues of Oak Leaves (the society’s quarterly newsletter) plus announcements concerning current research projects and upcoming events.
A Brief History of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod
The Evangelical Lutheran Synod had its beginnings among Norwegian immigrants to the United States of America in the nineteenth century. As these immigrants began settling primarily in the upper Midwest they had no congregations, no pastors, no schools of their own; but the Lord had not forgotten them. Soon pastors from their homeland began arriving to provide spiritual leadership for them and to organize congregations in which the public ministry of God’s Word and His Sacraments could preserve the people in the true faith.
One of these early immigrant pastors held a memorable service outdoors under an oak tree in September of 1844 at a place with the Indian name of Koshkonong, near Madison, Wisconsin. Soon afterward, two congregations bearing that name were organized in the area. In 1853 a church body composed of several congregations was organized at nearby Luther Valley Church under the official name of The Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. For a long time this church body was to be commonly known as the “Norwegian Synod.”
These Norwegian spiritual pioneers soon came into contact with other Lutheran groups in this country. Unfortunately, not all of the latter were in full agreement on the teaching and practice set forth in God’s Holy Word. However, the members of the Norwegian Synod eventually discovered a synod and its leader with whom they were in blessed agreement, a larger group of primarily German Lutherans known as the Missouri Synod, which quickly opened its educational institutions to the Norwegian Synod for the training of their pastors and teachers.
In 1872 these two synods, the Wisconsin Synod and several other state synods formed the Evangelical Lutheran Synodical Conference of North America, for many years a strong champion of the true teachings of the Holy Scriptures and of the Lutheran confessional writings gathered in the Book of Concord in 1580.
The Christian church here on earth, however, is called the militant church—and for good reason. The devil is constantly seeking to destroy God’s church by undermining the truth of His holy teachings. In the 1880s a serious disagreement on the biblical doctrine of God’s election of individuals to salvation divided the Norwegian Synod. When in 1917 the larger group resulting from this division rejoined other groups, a remnant of the Norwegian Synod refused to enter into this merger because it was based on the false teaching that man can somehow by nature cooperate with God in bringing about his own conversion.
In order to remain faithful to the truth of God’s Word, this minority reorganized in 1918 at Lime Creek Lutheran Church, near Lake Mills, Iowa, as The Norwegian Synod of the American Evangelical Lutheran Church. This name was later officially changed to its present designation, the Evangelical Lutheran Synod, with headquarters in Mankato, Minnesota. The Lord of the church blessed this little flock, which soon rejoined its former member churches in the Synodical Conference.
Mid-twentieth-century doctrinal differences arising in the Synodical Conference eventually forced the Norwegian Synod to withdraw from this federation. However, in 1993 it joined with the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod and several other smaller but doctrinally and confessionally sound Lutheran church bodies throughout the world to form a new international federation, the Confessional Evangelical Lutheran Conference.
In 1927 the synod purchased and began operating as its own school of higher learning, Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato. For many years a two-year college, it was at the turn of the century upgraded to a full baccalaureate institution. In 1946 Bethany Lutheran Theological Seminary was added to the synod’s educational program. The synod fervently promotes Christian education also at the elementary and high school levels and has quite a few Christian day schools and several area Lutheran high schools serving its youth. For a period of forty years it once operated a high school on the campus of Bethany Lutheran College. From its reorganization the synod has also been actively engaged in mission work both in the United States and in foreign lands.
The prayer arising from the hearts of the members of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod is that the Lord of the Church will preserve their church body as a true confessor of His inerrant and alone-saving Word, the Holy Scriptures.
Reprinted from: [Juul Madson], “A Brief History of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod,” An Explanation of Dr. Martin Luther’s Small Catechism(Mankato, MN: Evangelical Lutheran Synod, 2001), 215-16.
Aaberg, Theodore. A City Set on a Hill: A History of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod. Mankato, MN: Evangelical Lutheran Synod, 1968.
Larson, J. Herbert, and Juul B. Madson. Built on the Rock. Mankato, MN: Lutheran Synod Book Company, 1992.
Lillegard, George O., ed. Faith of Our Fathers, 1853-1953. Mankato, MN: Lutheran Synod Book Company, 1953.
Oak Leaves (quarterly newsletter of the ELS Historical Society) Click here to read.
Orvick, George M., ed. Our Great Heritage: A Popular History of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod. Mankato, MN: Evangelical Lutheran Synod, 1968.
Petersen, Wilhelm Walther. “Our Great Heritage.” Essay delivered at the 76th Annual Synod Convention Commemorating the 75th Anniversary of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod, Mankato, MN, 21-24 June 1993. Synod Report (1993), 84-114.
“A Timeline History of the Norwegian Synod (1853) and the Evangelical Lutheran Synod (1918).” Click here to read.
Ylvisaker, S. C., Christian Anderson, and George O. Lillegard, eds. Grace for Grace. Mankato, MN: Lutheran Synod Book Company, 1943.