As the ELCA prepares to spend the next year observing the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, several ELCA congregations can celebrate their individual rich histories. Ten churches, mostly on the East Coast and one in the Virgin Islands, were all started before 1715 by mostly Dutch, Swedish and German Lutherans who came to America in search of religious freedom.
While they have more than 300 years of longevity, the three oldest churches in the ELCA share some of the same struggles as many congregations—upholding their histories while adapting to changing religious landscapes.
Joel Thoreson, a reference archivist for the ELCA, said that while these individual church histories are probably more well-known in their local synods, not a lot of information exists on them in the ELCA Archives. “They’re not as celebrated as they ought to be,” he said.
Vernon Victorson agrees. He was pastor from 2000 to 2011 at the ELCA’s oldest church, First Lutheran in Albany, N.Y., which was founded by the Dutch in 1649.
“These churches are an important part of our stage in this country as Lutherans and need to be held up and recognized,” Victorson said. “Keeping the history rich and alive is very important as long as the history doesn’t drag down the mission or become the prime importance.”
Worshiping about 100 people on a Sunday, First is a mission-driven congregation, Victorson said. But he worries that someday there will be no one to keep First’s historical tradition alive if the congregation doesn’t continue. If it doesn’t, he said, “we’ll lose the oldest Lutheran congregation in North America.”
New Hanover Evangelical Lutheran in Gilbertsville, Pa., has similar concerns, said Lee Wesner, chair of the congregation’s history and archives committee. “History doesn’t change much, but historians become history,” he said with a smile. “We need young people to carry this on.”
New Hanover was founded by German Lutherans in 1700 and was historically led by Henry Muhlenberg, the German missionary who is known as the grandfather of Lutheranism in America. The church played a role in the American Revolution, serving as a hospital for wounded and ill soldiers.
Wesner said preserving New Hanover’s history is part of the congregation’s mission. “I can’t possibly imagine this church being closed,” he said. “We’ve got to keep this one alive. Not just for its history but because it’s one of the rocks upon which the whole church is built.”
While their backstories are important, the ELCA’s oldest congregations aren’t just about their pasts—they are also alive with ministry in their communities today.
“I consider it a rare opportunity to pastor this 350-year-old church,” said L.B. Tatum, pastor of Frederick Lutheran in Charlotte Amalie, Virgin Islands, which was established in 1666. “I feel the pastoral call here at Frederick is a great responsibility, not only for the historical preservation of Lutheranism in the Caribbean but also for the continuance of a vibrant ministry that is Christ-centered and missional in its approach to outreach and service.”
Founded by West Indian Lutherans, Frederick’s history tells of a rocky start. After outraging church authorities in Denmark, the congregation’s first pastor, Kjeld Jensen Slagelse, forced his way into the pulpit on the island of St. Thomas and preached uninvited. There were fewer than 50 Dutch, Germans, English and French living on St. Thomas when the church was founded and no indigenous inhabitants.
Today it’s a vibrant Caribbean Lutheran church. With a membership of about 300, Tatum said Frederick also serves visitors disembarking from the cruise ships: “The history of Frederick is visible both inside and outside the church. From the ringing of the bell just before worship to the replica of a Danish sailing ship that is suspended from the ceiling in the narthex, which is visible to all who enter the sanctuary.”
Tatum sees Frederick’s history and longevity in context to its theology. “The importance of Frederick to the ELCA is that Frederick is a visible indicator of the sustainability of God’s grace, hope and love for his people,” he said. “Moreover, Frederick is a gift from God to the whole church that affirms the words of Martin Luther when he said, ‘I have held many things in my hand and I have lost them all; but whatever I have placed in God’s hands, that I still possess.’ ”