It began in 1619, 400 years ago, with a group of Danish explorers who got trapped in the Canadian arctic. Lutherans have been coming to North America ever since then, still today.
The first waves of Lutheran immigrants were mainly from Germany and Scandinavia, but later on also from Finland, the Baltic countries, Slovakia, Eastern Europe and Russia. More recently, Lutherans have arrived from Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa, from Liberia, Ghana and Nigeria, from India, China and Indonesia, and from Brazil, Argentina and other Latin American countries. Not all Lutherans were immigrants—Latinos and African Americans found a home in Lutheranism, as have other European Americans.
Here they encountered a world different from the ones they left behind: this new world allowed them religious freedom, but no support. If they wanted Lutheran congregations, they would have to organize, run and pay for them themselves. Millions of nominal Lutherans left for other religious groups or for no religion at all. But through their efforts, Lutherans gathered and built.
They organized congregations in the thousands, and synods in the hundreds. Needing pastors and educated laypeople, they built schools and colleges and seminaries. Seeking to take care of one another and those around them, they organized hospitals, orphanages and other institutions of mercy and outreach. Having been served by missionaries themselves, they sent thousands of missionaries around the world with the good news of Jesus Christ.
It was difficult. Certainly, they lacked many basic resources, but that was often the least of their problems. They wondered whether their traditional Lutheranisms should be “translated” into the new world context and, if so, which ones they would use. Immigrants came with dozens of different Lutheran traditions, distinct in language, culture, ethnicity, worship styles and theology. Lutheranism had never been done in English—and they wondered if it could be.
These questions occasioned conflicts and divisions, but also a strong reassessment of what was of primary importance in the Lutheran tradition and what could be learned from other Christians. The Lutheran core of word and sacrament found myriad new forms.
The stories of these faithful Lutherans in this new world context are as diverse as they are fascinating.
The stories of these faithful Lutherans in this new world context are as diverse as they are fascinating. Adam Keefer walked hundreds of miles (barefoot) to beg for a pastor for his home congregation. Rosa Young organized dozens of Lutheran congregations and schools for African Americans in Alabama. Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, a missionary to Colonial America, pulled together the fragmented Lutherans and gave shape to this tradition in a new world.
Lutheran missionary pastors gathered in scattered congregations on the frontiers, and women and men left home to bring the gospel around the world. Millions of others served faithfully, some publicly, others quietly in their communities.
This is a history worth learning and celebrating. Not uncritically, for this history comes in all-too-human vessels. Equal parts celebration and repentance are called for, as Lutheran theology teaches that human beings are at the same time saints and sinners, and history shows this in great detail.
Yet this same theology reminds that these Lutherans could only have done any of this with the guidance and help of the Spirit, who works with (and in spite of) our weakness. Contemporary Christians dare not think of themselves as somehow better than those in their history. Equally, contemporary Christians also should not despair, for God has done and can do marvelous things through humans.
American Lutheran history is there for the taking. Elders are there in history and in the present to be heard and learned from, so as to discover the rich heritage of 400 years, and the possibilities for the future.
As the writer of Hebrews urges us: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us” (12:1).
- Lutherans in America: A New History by Mark Granquist (Fortress, 2015).
- All These Lutherans by Todd Nichol (Augsburg, 1986).
- Most Certainly True: Lutheran History at a Glance, edited by Mark Granquist (Lutheran University, 2017).
- Dictionary of Luther and the Lutheran Traditions, edited by Timothy Wengert (Baker, 2017).
- “We Must Plant the Church”: The Story of Lutherans in America (Select Learning documentary, 2015).